One of the ever-present fairy tales in California’s political
life is ballot-box budgeting. The term ballot box budgeting
commonly refers to any situation where the raising and/or spending
of funds appear to be controlled by the direct vote of the
electorate. The truth is that for several reasons, including false
advertising and fine print, the majority of attempts at ballot-box
budgeting fail miserably.
One of the ever-present fairy tales in California’s political life is ballot-box budgeting. The term ballot box budgeting commonly refers to any situation where the raising and/or spending of funds appear to be controlled by the direct vote of the electorate. The truth is that for several reasons, including false advertising and fine print, the majority of attempts at ballot-box budgeting fail miserably.
Additionally, ballot-box budgeting has another unintended and undesirable effect; it often makes the electorate part of the problem – this feature delights most politicians, although they will never admit it. When our elected representatives do a lousy job there is nothing they like better than to blame it on the citizens they are supposed to serve.
At first blush, ballot box budgeting appears reasonable. The voters want a specific outcome so they vote for a provision that will restrict the way the money is raised and/or spent, but do they really understand what they are voting for?
Hollister’s Measure T, the 1 percent sales-tax increase, can serve as a perfect illustration. It has all the features of ballot-box budgeting; the money was supposed to be used to restore services. However, a dollar is a dollar, and with Measure T funds available, the Hollister City Council did not have to make the difficult decision to give pay raises or provide increased services; they were able to do both even though the measure’s initial income was 30 percent below estimates! The raises mean that a dollar buys even fewer services that before. When the tax increase runs out, the city will be unable to get back anywhere near the services they had prior to Measure T for the same cost. As pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Those citizens who had hoped that service increases would result in the elimination of property crime or minor accident self-reporting were recently told that they may be paying more, but when it comes to public service, they can still expect no better. Not to worry, we have been assured that there will be more traffic tickets in our future. Considering the downtown vacancy rate, that must be the city’s new plan for generating income. Being a ‘high ticket area’ is bound to get those shoppers flooding in.
The same types of shenanigans occur at the state level. Spending limits disappear as the governor and Legislature manipulate funds and definitions while wheeling and dealing. In the end, taxes and fees will be higher because they are spending other people’s money and once they get to a budget agreement, they stop looking at where it goes. The voters are in control of the ballot box, but the politicians are in control of the process, so unless you’re prepared to “throw the bums out,” you might at well get used to more of the same.
Most taxpayers understand that it’s necessary to fund government. They just want their money’s worth; they are not getting it. It costs $3,850 per year to provide health insurance to the average California worker. The California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation spends $7,000 per inmate per year on health care and the federally appointed medical receiver wants a judge to give him $8 billion more over five years for improved improvements – and he’s likely to get it!
The unwritten rule of government is if they have money, they are going to spend it all and then some more. When times are good, they spend because times will always be good. When times are bad they spend because the constituents want the services. Tomorrow, the very same politicians, now dead broke, will be scolding the taxpayers for running up their personal credit cards or for failing to save for a rainy day. There are no rainy days for the tax and spend group.
This November, there are sure to be some ballot-box budget proposals up for approval. You can recognize them easily. They will promise to do something in exchange for tax dollars and they are betting that you won’t read the fine print. It’s a good bet, most people never do.