The novelist Mary McCarthy once wrote of Lillian Hellman that, “every word she wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” The same could be said of the legislature’s conduct in trying to give Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase initiative a leg up by moving it to the top of the November ballot.
By appearing first, the theory goes, the voters would be more likely to pass the Brown tax increase and defeat two rival measures farther down the ballot. The slight of hand that makes this possible was a budget trailer bill that declared that constitutional amendments – Brown’s being one – would be higher up on the ballot than plain old statutory initiatives. The Secretary of State and several major county clerks already had done everything they could to put Brown ahead of his rivals by seeing that his initiative qualified first.
The only way the legislature could accomplish this was to abuse the new authority the voters gave them to enact the budget by a majority vote (Proposition 25, 2010). This gives the majority Democrats full control of the budget process, including the writing of trailer bills that are necessary for the budget to go into effect.
According to the new law, budget trailer bills are “bills providing for appropriations related to the budget bill.” That is pretty clear but there is a limit. “Bills relating to appropriations for the budget bill shall consist only of bills relating to the budget in the budget bill passed by the legislature.”
Any five year old should be able to understand this: a budget trailer bill must relate to the budget. But nowhere in the budget do we have anything that talks about the numbering of measures for the November ballot. The “trailer bill” used for this purpose appropriates $1,000 to cover the costs of changing the way measures were numbered, but this does not cost anybody anything; so the appropriation is a sham. The legislature vehicle used for this scam was a “spot bill,” a bill with no content to be amended later.
So what we have here is the legislature abusing the powers given it by the voters just two years to pass the budget and its trailer bills on a majority vote. The abuse comes in the form of a scheme to rig the election for Brown’s tax increase. When you cannot count on elections being clean and honest, the people’s confidence in their elected leaders truly is at risk.
This issue is to be heard before a Sacramento judge today. Whether it continues through the judicial process is anybody’s guess. But there is an important lesson here: if the legislature cannot be counted upon to be honest in how it conducts the election for the tax increase, how can we be sure it will be honest in how it spends the money the tax increase will raise?
Whether this trick eventually succeeds, the legislature and the governor have set up a serious impediment to the voters’ passing this tax. They were not honest in how they refigured the ballot; how can we believe they will be honest in how they spend the money?
The Field Poll that came out last week shows how precarious their position is. Only 54 percent of voters support the tax increase and voters still seem convinced there is waste that can be cut out of the budget – maybe those $200,000 public pensions have something to do with it.
But the most compelling reason to oppose this tax increase is not the amount of the tax, or the parade of horrors if it is defeated; it is that the legislature has proven it cannot be trusted to have an honest election, so why should we give them more money than they have now?