Spending Limit and the Orient Express

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The early, private polling I’ve seen is all over the map on Prop 1A, the new spending limit. Much depends on how the complicated limit is described – and on the nature of the opposition to the measure.

But common sense indicates the limit faces a steeply uphill fight. Why? The measure has bitter enemies everywhere – among liberals who hate any limit on spending, among conservatives who hate that the limit is linked to taxes, among anyone who hates the legislature (a solid majority in California) and even among pointy-headed centrists who won’t like the details of the limit as they learn them. One imagines that even the legislative leaders who negotiated it won’t shed a tear if Prop 1A goes down. The Democrats didn’t want it, and it was less than the hard spending cap that Republicans pined for. If the limit goes down, everyone could be a suspect, even politicians who endorsed it.

The strongest advocate is the governor, whose popularity has been on the decline. But in embracing this spending limit and rainy day fund, with its ties to taxes, the governor may have undone one of his accomplishments. The rainy day fund he convinced lawmakers to place on the ballot last year had a far better chance of passing, since it wasn’t tied to taxes. This spending limit and rainy day fund may be better policy, but the fact that temporary tax increases last longer if it passes may fatally undermine it. The governor had little choice but to do this deal-the state was running out of cash. But he’ll need real wizardry to avoid defeat on Prop 1A.

He’ll also need to resist the temptation to lead the campaign in public. His low public ratings could be a drag on the measure. And, fairly or not, he may have a particular credibility problem on the budget. He’s done so much campaign for spending measures that he has said would end the state’s budget problems, and none of the measures has delivered. Schwarzenegger needs to run a union-style campaign-visually at least–with teachers, police, and nurses speaking out about how the spending limit is needed.

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