There’s already a ton of talk about which tax-raising initiatives might end up on the 2016 ballot.

I’m sympathetic to tax increases — by themselves. The state needs more money. And taxes on things that we want to reduce use of – cigarettes, alcohol, horse-race news coverage (I’m only half-joking about that last – feel free to give it a try, Barry Fadem) – are good policy. California is overdue for a big hike in the tobacco tax.

The problem is that tax initiatives are rarely just about taxes. They often are combined with provisions that specify where the money is spent. And since California’s initiative process is so inflexible, that effectively locks in spending decisions. And California already has way too many spending decisions locked in (Prop 2 being the latest culprit).

Why do tax initiatives do this? For 2 big reasons. The first is pay-to-play. Initiative campaigns cost a lot of money, and to get people to give that money, initiative sponsors often have to promise people spending in categories they want. That’s in part why Prop 29, a tobacco tax, lost two years ago – it was larded up with special provisions and moneys for the various health and disease groups that funded it. Such pay-to-play behavior is more than shameful – it ought to be illegal. But in initiative politics, it’s standard practice.

The other reason is politics – specifically political defense. If you propose to raise taxes and send the money to the general fund, opponents of your measure will say that you’re letting “politicians” spend the money, thus undermining the force of your tax. The idea is to reserve the money for something popular. Voters don’t seem to get that we’ve been starving the general fund – and forcing cuts on higher education, and critical school and health programs – precisely because of this kind of ballot box budgeting.

Since the press and voters won’t do it, it’s critical that civic-minded Californians focus on this question with the tax initiatives: Is it clean? Or is it larded up with budget-busting gimmicks to fool voters or pay off donors? And if an initiative were dirty, you’d be wise to vote against it – even if it raises a tax worth raising.