The latest Field Poll tells us a lot about the mindset of the California electorate. According to the poll's findings, voters believe that they can be trusted to "to do what's right" on major policy issues more than lawmakers in Sacramento.
Fair enough. So let's look at the wisdom of the voters in recent years. In something of a pincer movement, Californians have piled on new expenditures while stripping away the ability of elected officials to raise funds for those commitments.
- Voters have slashed local property taxes, once the primary funding source for education, and required the state to spend at least 40 percent of the annual budget on K-12 public education. The result is that the state has had to severely reduce commitments for other programs, many of which benefit local governments.
- Voters have passed "three strikes" legislation requiring sentences of 25 years to life, helping to make incarceration the fastest growing area of state spending. This decision, among others, has led to prison overcrowding, which in turn has forced the state to off-load prisoners to local jails.
- Funding K-12 public education and keeping the bad guys in prison for a long time seem noble enough, until we learn of unintended consequences from those voter-endorsed decisions. With reduced flexibility and little opportunity to raise additional funds courtesy of voters' pronouncements at the ballot box, the state has had to make dramatic reductions in the few spending areas not addressed by federal government mandates or the voters.
One result was the dismantling of higher education, which is the largest spending area left without mandates. Thirty years ago, the state dedicated 10 percent of the general fund to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today, the state spends less than 8 percent on higher education and 11 percent for prisons.
But wait, someone might say. The voters never said that the state should make those changes. But the voters have said as much, by making ballot choices in the other areas.
So, are the voters smarter about policy making than elected officials? The answer to that question may not be as clear as we think.