EDITORIAL: RESULTS IN CALIFORNIA ARE NOT WHAT YOU’RE BEING TOLD

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By David O. Atkins

As most political junkies are aware, California just held a special election two days ago in which voters were asked to approve measures to close our enormous budget deficit by borrowing against the lottery, stealing from children's education and mental health services programs, and agreeing to a painful spending cap in exchange for moderate, regressive tax increases.  Voters overwhelmingly rejected those measures, approving only one proposition denying legislators the ability to raise their own salaries during bad budget years.

It is important to note that both Republicans and progressives were opposed to these measures: Republicans opposed them because Proposition 1A would have extended tax increases for two years, which is anathema to the extremist minority of Republicans in the state.  More generally, Republicans have no interest in seeing a reasonable budget passed: they are determined to force a cuts-only budget despite being vastly outnumbered in the legislature, or to see the state run off a cliff financially, in which case they see the opportunity to break the backs of state employee unions.  A majority of progressives opposed the measures because they would fail to close the budget gap, while forcing needless and painful cuts, and capping state spending in good years in such a way that the state would be irrevocably harmed for years to come.

Predictably, Republicans are claiming victory, stating that the vote amounts to an anti-tax revolution reminiscent of their Tea Party protests.  Also as predictably, the traditional media have completely fallen for this line: the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post each have articles framing this result as an anti-tax victory, even as the legislature obediently begins work on what will amount to an all-cuts budget.

The only problem is that this result is anything BUT an anti-tax revolt.

On the morning of May 21st, California bloggers and media were treated to a conference call with Obama focus group maestro David Binder, who presented results of research done on the special election in CA, as well as the president of the California Federation of Teachers and the Assistant Director of AFSCME International (in powerpoint format here):

The vast majority of voters surveyed said the state should balance both spending cuts and tax increases to address the state budget shortfall. Revenue options supported by a strong majority of voters include:

Increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages (75% support)

Increasing taxes on tobacco (74% support

Imposing an oil extraction tax on oil companies just like every other oil producing state (73% support)

Closing the loophole that allows corporations to avoid reassessment of the value of new property they purchase (63% support)

Increasing the top bracket of the state income tax from nine point three percent to 10 percent for families with taxable income over $272,000 a year and to eleven percent for families with taxable incomes over $544,000 a year (63% support)

Prohibiting corporations from using tax credits to offset more than fifty percent of the taxes they owe (59% support)

While voters strongly support these options to help California increase its revenue, voters are strongly against specific spending cuts proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger:

76% oppose cutting public school spending by $5.3 billion

73% oppose cutting funding for state colleges and universities by $1.2 billion

68% oppose cutting the state's funding for health care services by $1.1 billion

62% oppose cutting the state’s funding for homecare services by $494 million

Additionally, only 29% of voters believe the budget should be resolved through cuts alone--including 46% of voters who opposed Proposition 1A.

David Dayen at Calitics has an excellent recap quoting a salient portion of David Binder's memo on the results:

Contrary to what the Governor is saying after the defeat of his proposals, Prop 1A did not fail because voters delivered a message to "go all out" in cutting government spending. The all-time record low turnout for a statewide special election clearly demonstrates the lack of depth to that argument. Prop 1A did not generate a spike in turnout and taxes were not cited as the main reason why voters overwhelmingly rejected Prop 1A.  Support for a state budget that relies solely on spending cuts is very limited - even among those voting no on Prop 1a.

Voters in this election were more likely to be Republicans and less likely to be Independents, whereas Democratic voters came out in proportions consistent with past turnout. Of those that voted in this election, 43% were Democrats, 42% were Republicans and 15% were Independents or minor party voters. This past November, the electorate consisted of 46% Democrats, 32% Republicans and 22% Independents or minor party voters.

In November 2010, the electorate will be a group that is more supportive of the revenue options tested in the survey, and more strongly opposed to only using cuts to balance the state budget. While only 36% of voters that turned out for the May 19th election supported using entirely budget cuts to balance the budget, even fewer - only 24% -- of non-voters felt the same way [...]

Voters simply do not trust the leadership in Sacramento, and recognize that the failed special election was just another example of the inability to bring real solutions to voters. When given two choices, four out of five voters - even among those who voted 'Yes' on 1A - agreed that the special election was just another example of the failure of the Governor and Legislature, who should make the hard decisions necessary to really fix the budget. Only 20% agreed the special election was a sincere effort to fix the state's budget mess.

The fact is that Californians view this as a leadership problem--not a tax-and-spend problem.  The voters' preferences for progressive policies are clear, based on broad support for increased sin taxes and taxes on the wealthy and corporations, as well as our electing 65% of the legislature as Democrats, and our overwhelming support for Barack Obama in the presidential election.  Voters did not see this special election as a good-faith effort on the part of the legislators to balance the budget, but rather as a gimmick placed on the backs of the voters.

In the defense of the legislature, however, their hands are tied by the preposterous 2/3 requirement on the budget and on revenue increases.  California is the only state in the nation to require a 2/3 majority for both.  It's impossible to lead when one has no tools with which to lead.

Nothing in this state will be resolved until Californians reform our initiative process, and eliminate the 2/3 requirement for budgets and revenue increases.

It is high time that Democratic legislators abandoned fruitless efforts at "bipartisanship" and "compromise" (the provisions in this special election were the result of "compromise" between Schwarzenegger, the Democratic Majority, and a couple of "moderate" Republicans), and focus almost exclusively on ridding the state of the baneful 2/3 requirement on budgets and revenue increases, as well as a possible constitutional convention should Republicans remain intransigent.

And it is high time that the traditional media looked at actual facts when analyzing election results, rather than transcribing extremist Republican fantasies.

David O. Atkins is president of the Ventura County Young Democrats.