Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!

Sir Walter Scott

From the poem, Marmion, published in 1808

It’s safe to assume that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe, who was born in the 18th century, was not thinking of California when he wrote the lines above. But, I find it hard not to connect the poet’s thought to the major state political issues that have captured the media and voters attention recently: the placement of the governor’s tax measure on the ballot, high speed rail, and pension reform.

Today’s hearing in a Sacramento courtroom will determine if the governor and the legislature are trying to pull a fast one on the public by rearranging the order of ballot initiatives to put the governor’s initiative on top by declaring the legislature’s action “related to the budget.”

The argument from the governor’s side that all initiative constitutional amendments influence the budget does not hold water when you consider both statutory measures that really do influence the budget and some of the constitutional measures that have passed.

Anybody remember the initiative constitutional amendment that banned fisherman from using gill nets? It passed in 1990 and became part of the state constitution. Does that measure have more influence on the state budget than, say, Molly Munger’s tax proposal, a statute, that would effect nearly every taxpayer and greatly influence the state’s revenue and spending?

The issue debated before the court today has a greater long-term effect on state budgeting than the positioning of propositions on the ballot. Whether the legislature has the power to decide how it can manipulate the process to declare any bill an “appropriation related to the budget” and pass it to take effect immediately has far-reaching consequences. If the court sides with the legislative majority’s interpretation then legislators would produce more of the deceptive bills such as the one the court is considering today.

Was it deception or simply poor math that presented the voters with a business plan for High Speed Rail on the 2008 ballot that was so far off in its estimations on a number issues related to the bullet train?

It is now clear that the original information provided the voters, overestimated ridership, overestimated the speed of the train and travel time, overestimated available funding sources, and, most importantly, underestimated costs.

Others saw the truth in these miscalculations from the beginning.  A report issued jointly by the Reason Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation two months before the High Speed Rail vote disclosed among other things, that the cost would not be the $33 billion that the rail authority was telling the public but more like $65-$81 billion, which now appears to be correct.

The failure to deal with public pension reform is another problem facing the legislature. We don’t know exactly what the legislature has in mind since the leadership has refused to reveal their plan to the public. However, if the letters from the mayors of San Diego and San Jose sent to key legislators and made public are an indication, the legislature is trying to undercut pension reforms on the local level through state action, at the behest of the public employee unions. This would be unpardonable.

As been often said, politics ain’t bean bag, but the efforts of state government bodies to change the rules or not provide factual information or generally deceive the public in the spirit of believing they are doing what is best for the state exemplifies the warning offered by Walter Scott.

The legislature is building a tangled web that undermines trust in government, a web that will ensnare government itself and its ability to function.