By Mark Baldassare
, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California
This commentary appeared in theSan Francisco Chronicle
on May 24, 2009
As the governor and Legislature chart the course for California's fiscal future, the state's elected officials are saying they got the message and will follow the will of the people as they balance the budget. What they are overlooking in the aftermath of the overwhelming defeat of their ballot measures is that the special-election results have little to say about the tax-and-spending preferences of Californians today.
The lessons we learn, instead, are about the severe limits of ballot-box budgeting and the need for the Legislature and the governor to take full responsibility for their fiscal choices.
When the state's elected leaders called a special election, they must have realized that very important decisions that will affect all Californians were being placed in the hands of a tiny group of voters. And that is exactly what happened. Even by the standards of past special elections, this election at an off-time in an off-year failed to generate much notice, according to the PPIC Statewide Surveys. At the latest count, about 4 million voters participated in the special election - 23 percent of registered voters and 17 percent of eligible adults. The "no" votes for Propositions 1A through 1E amounted to about 2.5 million votes, on average. In other words, what is being characterized as the will of the people reflects the will of a small slice of the 38 million people who will live with the consequences.
More to the point, the special election voters were not a representative group of Californians. Their vote choices cannot be relied upon as accurate indicators of the fiscal preferences of all of the people.
Generally speaking, those most likely to vote in state elections tend to be older, affluent and college-educated. They are more likely to be white and homeowners compared to the population at large. We call this voter group the "exclusive electorate" because they reflect the "haves" more than the "have nots" who tend to be most in need of public services. The likely voters who were most closely following the May 19 election news in our pre-election polls - our best estimate of the voters most likely to participate - tended to be older, better educated, more affluent, and also more fiscally conservative than all Californians on tax and spending. Most "likely voters" in our May poll said they favored a state government that had fewer services and lower taxes. By contrast, most adults overall stated a stronger preference for more services and higher taxes.
Finally, the rejection of the propositions does not offer the governor and Legislature any specific direction on either cutting spending or raising taxes. Fiscal ballot measures in special elections have often met similar fates, dating back to Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1973 and, more recently, to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. When ballot measures are too complicated, as they were this time, many voters simply will vote no.
Voters look for consensus when they doubt the political motivations of the ballot measures. This special election, they found something approaching one: opposition from Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, and liberals and conservatives, alike.
The lesson: The state's elected officials should not be asking the voters to make fiscal decisions in a special election. In doing so, we have lost time in addressing a growing budget deficit. The governor and the Legislature should not blame the voters for the spending-and-tax decisions that they will be making in the coming weeks. The small proportion who did vote simply sent a message to Sacramento to get back to work. In this crisis, there is an opportunity for the governor and Legislature to gain the approval and increase the confidence of the public by making policy choices that will set the state on a course for sound fiscal policy and an economic recovery.