Legislators Send Mixed Messages on Budget Ballot Measures

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:24:00 PM

State legislators representing Berkeley and Oakland constituents in Sacramento gave a mixed message on the upcoming May special election to local progressive activists last week, uniting in opposition to a proposition that would impose a permanent cap on state spending, but dividing over a ballot measure that would siphon money from the state lottery. 

State Senator Loni Hancock and State Representatives Sandré Swanson and Nancy Skinner spoke at a Thursday evening meeting of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. 

The split between the three progressive legislators over the May 19 ballot propositions reflects an uncertainty within California’s vast progressive-liberal-labor community over how best to handle the state’s massive budget deficit as well as a united conservative-Republican caucus in the Legislature that has pledged to block all solutions that include the raising of taxes. 

On Thursday, March 26, all three local legislators condemned the February budget itself, in which Republicans were able to carve out major concessions in return for enough votes to pass. Hancock called the negotiations “my lowest ebb,” describing it as “pain and humiliation to have to take the things that were being demanded of us [by the Republicans] and to decide which of our core values would have to be thrown out. It was infuriating and frightening. It felt like what it would be to be a hostage.”  

Swanson, who was stripped of a committee chairmanship by House Speaker Karen Bass for refusing to go along with the Democratic caucus on some of the budget measures, said that while California needs to generate more revenue to support its rapidly growing population, “we have a broken revenue system of taxes. There should be a sober discussion of exactly what kind of revenues the state will need to go forward, to adequately fund education, to adequately fund health care as we go forward. But that’s not the debate we’re having.” Skinner was more blunt, calling the negotiated budget package “a piece of shit.”  

Meanwhile, Hancock says the Senate Elections Committee, of which she is chair, is working on a state proposition that would eliminate the two-thirds legislative vote requirement for passage of the state budget, the main weapon Republicans have been using to force their will upon the budget. Hancock said that measure could be on the state ballot as early as next year. 

In February, in an effort to close a $42 billion shortfall in the current year’s budget ending the first of July, the Legislature passed a package that would balance the budget through various complicated stratagems, including a provision that California voters must pass a series of revenue-raising or revenue-shifting measures on the May 19 special election ballot.  

Since that time, state legislative analysts have said that the failing economy has added another $8 billion to this year’s state deficit that will have to be closed by legislators sometime in May or June. 

The biggest revenue measure on the May 19 ballot, Proposition 1A, would raise $15 billion in revenue for the state through fiscal year 2012-13, but little of that money would be available to help the state treasury this fiscal year. In addition, 1A would put a permanent cap on future state spending. Another measure, Proposition 1C, would borrow $5 billion from future state lottery profits to use to help close this year’s deficit. Two other measures, 1D and 1E, would provide minimal help to the budget. Measure 1B would shift some general fund money to education beginning in 2011-2012, but only goes into effect if 1A passes as well. Measure 1F withholds pay raises from state elected officials in budget deficit years. 

Hancock, Swanson and Skinner all spoke in opposition to 1A, saying the measure’s spending cap would cripple the state’s ability to operate in future years. Hancock called the cap “as dangerous as Proposition 13 and the three-strikes law.” But they took different roads on 1C and the lottery borrowing which, if it fails, would add another $5 billion to the $8 billion the Legislature is already going to have to find to balance the budget by June 30. 

“I don’t like gambling, as you know,” Hancock said. “Casinos, or lotteries. And particularly if it means we won’t have to cut an extra $5 billion this year, I will probably grit my teeth and vote for that.” 

Skinner initially agreed with Hancock, saying that “we should absolutely” vote for it because of the extra $5 billion hole its failure would leave the state in. “Without any ability to get these Republicans to vote for any more revenues,” she said, “we’ll have to find $13 billion in additional cuts, and there’s hardly anywhere to go for that.” But after Swanson spoke in opposition to the measure, Skinner backed off of her support, saying she hadn’t considered Swanson’s angle, and would have to rethink her position in the wake of his remarks. 

“The Republican leadership has said that they are not going to vote for taxes” to take care of the projected $8 billion hole the state is in, even if the May 19 ballot measures pass, Swanson said. “But if all of the propositions fail, and the hole is not $8 billion but $15 billion, maybe that’s too big to survive on cuts alone, and the Republicans will have to come back to the table around taxes. And maybe this time the taxes will be permanent and deal with the structural deficit. So I’m just not convinced that our only choice is to take it or leave it or we’ll find ourselves with devastating cuts.” 

Speaking specifically on 1C, Swanson said that “if I support the lottery (ballot measure), and I agree to give the Legislature an additional $5 billion to address this problem, then it’s easier for people to work on an all-cuts solution. If I don’t [support the lottery ballot measure], then maybe it forces them to come up with a real solution.” 

Swanson urged a no vote on 1C and all of the other budget-related ballot propositions. 

The disagreement between the three East Bay legislators—expressed in terms in which each legislator said they respected the opinions of the others—reflected a broader disagreement in the state’s liberal-progressive-labor coalition over how to approach the May 19 ballot measures. A handout by Skinner’s office reported that the state office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the California Nurses Association have come out against the six budget-related ballot propositions (1A through 1F), while AFSCME Local 2620 (health and social services professional employees), the Bay Area Council, the California Teachers Association, and the Peace Officers Research Association of California were all in favor. The California Federation of Teachers is in favor of 1B and opposed to the rest, while the California State University Board of Trustees, the League of Women Voters, and the California Building Trades Council were all taking split positions on the measures. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has come out against 1A, but has yet to take a position on the other five measures. 


Correction: This story has been amended to give correct information on the California Federation of Teachers' positions.