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In the past 30 years, California has slipped from being a world leader in education, health care and public policy innovation to our current status as a case study in broken government.
On Tuesday, we have a chance to put California back on track. Proposition 25, the ballot measure repealing the requirement of a two-thirds vote for the legislature to pass a budget, is the best tool we have to fix our broken state. At the same time, Proposition 26 is another measure on Tuesday’s ballot that can only make matters worse by expanding the two-thirds vote beyond its current application.
A majority vote -the current standard in 47 states — was the law in California until 1980, when a two-thirds vote requirement was enacted. Since then, we have been captive to a system of mutually assured destruction.
In the middle of each summer, Los Angeles County braces for what has become an annual ordeal: months of very real pain and suffering caused by a fake crisis. Because neither party holds a two-thirds legislative majority, passage of the budget is typically paralyzed as an impotent majority facing an intransigent minority.
Budget deadlines have been met only three times since 2000, and ten times since 1980. In Los Angeles, late summer and fall have come to mean state funds for everything from meals for senior citizens to special education programs for children survive are withheld. The agencies in the lurch may cut off clients, or continue to operate only through costly borrowing — and sometimes begging — by service providers. The resultant human tragedies — workers laid off, medical treatment denied and services to needy children and seniors cut back — imperil our most vulnerable residents.
Having served together on the Los Angeles City Council (3.5 million residents) in the early 1990’s and now as Los Angeles County Supervisors (10.7 million residents), we are calling for an end to the madness.
Proposition 25 removes the principal obstacle to timely budgeting. If a budget is not passed on time, Proposition 25 shifts the suffering from the public to its source: lawmakers who miss the deadline don’t get paid.
Along with timely budgets, the state and localities need to be able to raise revenue through time-honored, popularly-supported means. We urge you to vote Yes on Proposition 25.
Now Proposition 26, a measure financially backed by oil, tobacco and alcohol companies, would impose a two-thirds vote requirement to raise or impose fees, including those meant to offset human health hazards or environmental degradation. Those fees can now be imposed by majority votes.
We urge you to vote No on Proposition 26.
Our districts are among the most diverse in the United States, containing extremes of wealth and poverty among our people and encompassing a landscape including oil fields, industrial plants and wilderness areas. In this multi-faceted environment our people nevertheless share many common concerns: rising childhood obesity, air, ground and water pollution and the persistent scourges of alcoholism and smoking.
Fees for practices such as vending of unhealthy foods, liquor sales or hazardous materials treatment can offset hidden health and environmental costs while discouraging the activities that generate those often heavy costs to society. These would include health care burdens caused by smoking, drinking or consuming unhealthy foods, or cleanup costs and illnesses due to pollution.
Such fees have long been accepted as sound policies that transcend liberal-conservative divisions: unlike potentially burdensome regulations, fees are market-based solutions that help set a true price on products, then leave the consumer free to determine if the price is worth paying. Those who would block such fees would in effect subsidize polluters or sellers of unhealthy foods by making all taxpayers fund the costs of cleaning up their messes, whether on the natural environment or in the bodies of individuals.
Voting for Proposition 25 and against Proposition 26 are key steps in restoring the sense of public purpose that made California great. We must end the vocabulary of fear that has stifled constructive public discourse for the past three decades. Invoking the specter of “higher taxes” and “runaway spending” has devolved into a cheap trick that has cheapened our society. We need the courage to invest in our future and, if necessary, make sacrifices today to pay for the real improvements in schools, public health and infrastructure that will accelerate our economic growth and well-being.
Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky are members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.