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The False Self-Confidence of California Voters

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    There's nothing worse than a person who thinks he can do no wrong, especially when that person does many things wrong.

    In other words, there's nothing worse than a California voter.

    A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California shows that California voters, despite their direct participation in creating California's famously broken governing and budget systems, persist in thinking they know what they're doing in making decisions.

    This overconfidence exists in voters across the ideological spectrum and across party lines. Big majorities prefer to make decisions through California's initiative process than through the governor and the legislature.

    That's nuts. And it's proof all by itself that voters don't understand what's going on.

    California's initiative process is the most inflexible in the world. When you make policy by initiative, you essentially must be right -- because it's next to impossible to change something done by initiative in California. Changes usually require another vote of the people -- which requires big money. When the legislature and governor make a policy change, they can go back and tweak it.

    As a result, most of the things that don't work in California are permanent constitutional amendments or initiatives -- and were put in place by voters.

    Just look at this November's ballot. Virtually every initiative that's on the ballot is there because of decisions voters previously made.  Why? Because voters have put in place restrictions that require more action by voters to undo them or work around them.

    If voters had left lawmakers alone, they'd have gotten better results.

    For example, the state would probably have a budget that is closer to balanced, and more manageable, if legislative majorities could act. But voters have established, protected and expanded supermajority protections on all sorts of tax and spending issues. They've voted for borrowing and spending mandates that add to the budget, while supporting revenue limitations that make it hard to pay for those things. 

    All the rules and restrictions make it next to impossible for the legislature to act. The result? Voters face four tax and budget measures on this year's ballot -- three of which tie the hands of lawmakers further, and thus ensure that more decisions go to voters.

    Without supermajority requirements, Democrats would have raised taxes to balance the budget already. Instead, unable to get a supermajority for taxes, they've used debt and gimmicks to paper over budget deficits. And they've voted to put to the voters an initiative, Prop 30, to raise taxes temporarily.

    Prop 30's taxes are temporary -- which means they won't fix the structural budget deficit -- precisely because voters -- who think they know what they're doing -- don't like permanent taxes.

    Of course, most voters don't understand this situation. They persist in blaming the legislature for inaction and for the results of decisions the voters themselves made. There's a basic loss of contact with reality here -- a set of false beliefs that voters hold onto regarding what is happening in California and what their real role in the state's problems is.

    There is a clinical term for this condition. It's called psychosis.

    Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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