Angry electorate left to make Calif. budget calls

California Special Election
Supporters of child care workers demonstrate on May 6 against proposed budget cuts to Sacramento, Calif. California voters will go to the polls for a special election to decide how to deal with the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit.Rich Pedroncelli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

California residents will get the chance to decide what happens to their tax dollars in a special election this week, but whether the electorate registers their approval — or even show up to vote — it won't make much of an improvement in the state's gaping budget hole.

Lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arranged Tuesday's special election on six ballot measures in February, when they agreed to a budget package that was intended to close a $42 billion deficit through the middle of next year. But even after cutting $15 billion in spending, raising taxes by $12.8 billion and borrowing more than $11 billion, the budget deficit has reappeared amid a global economic recession.

Analysts say the six ballot measures are a recipe for electoral disaster because of their complexity and the lack of support from a unified state Legislature. The election also comes at a time of rising unemployment rates, plunging home values and deep distrust of state politicians, leaving voters in a foul mood.

Analysts have questioned whether it's smart for lawmakers to place so much of the state's annual budgeting process in the hands of the electorate.

"It's not particularly wise to put to voters these decisions," said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It not only causes the expense of having elections, it causes voter fatigue, it causes voter disgust with the system."

Unpopular hikes and initiatives
The propositions on the ballot range from measures that directly affect next year's budget to those that deal with the state's fiscal future. One would create a state spending cap, but it doesn't say anything about what else it would do if passed: Extend unpopular hikes in sales, personal income and vehicle taxes through 2013.

Two measures ask voters to tinker with initiatives they approved previously, redirecting nearly $900 million from childhood development programs and mental health services to the state general fund.

Another proposition wants voters to authorize higher jackpot payouts for the state lottery, which Schwarzenegger and lawmakers say would attract enough additional lottery revenue to enable the state to borrow $5 billion now and pay it back with the additional proceeds. But the measure doesn't say how investors would be repaid if the revenue doesn't increase as promised.

Even if voters approve all the measures, the state still would face a deficit of $15.4 billion in the fiscal year beginning in July. But Schwarzenegger and lawmakers who support the ballot propositions say voters do have a choice Tuesday: approve the measures and face a $15.4 billion deficit, or reject them and stuck with a $21.3 billion deficit and deeper cuts.

"It's ridiculous," said Natalie Head, a 34-year-old registered Sacramento Democrat. "Whether they win or loose: A, the deficit is so much bigger now than when it was when they built this plan. And B, you can't budget on proposals."

'Deep, deep trouble'
Campaign messages for the initiatives have been mixed, uniting some historically opposing groups such as conservative anti-tax groups and state employee unions while dividing opinion between the state's two teachers unions.

As a result, voters like Charles Morris, a 46-year-old registered Republican from Sacramento, have tuned out.

"I don't know anything about it because I don't pay any attention to them," Morris said, adding that he didn't plan to vote because he was unfamiliar with the state budgeting process.

Schwarzenegger has pleaded with state officials for action, saying this week that they "are in deep, deep trouble unlike the state has ever faced." His personnel office has begun sending layoff notices to 5,000 state workers, and the governor has said thousands of teachers would lose their jobs, the school year would be shortened and tens of thousands of children from low-income families would lose health care.

Critics blast tactics
Even so, the governor hasn't had much luck with pleading for support from voters: All eight ballot propositions were rejected in the last special election called by Schwarzenegger in 2005.

Schwarzenegger's critics called the pronouncements scare tactics and noted that the deficit will be monstrous even if voters approve the ballot propositions.

But if it's action that the governor wants, recent polls showed that one of the six propositions appeared to have wide voter support. It would prohibit lawmakers and other state elected officials from receiving pay raises during deficit years.