Prop 1A: Pork Barrel Spending?

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The labor union campaign opposing Proposition 1A has released its first TV ad, attacking the measure's planned budget reserve as a way to "spend billions on pork barrel projects."

The ad comes from the labor union committee fighting against Prop 1A (there's also another anti-1A committee out there), and a spokesman says the TV ad goes up today both on local network affiliates and on cable providers across the state. Its backers -- most notably the California Faculty Association and the state council of the SEIU -- have put up enough cash for a targeted TV ad campaign, but not as much money as the omnibus campaign in support of all six budget measures, whose two ads have been up for a couple of weeks.

The anti-Prop 1A ad hones in on the reserve fund established by the proposal and suggests that its uses would be less than ideal.

The pot of money in question would technically be called the Supplemental Budget Stabilization Account, and would probably amount to (using estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office) between $1.5 billion and $3 billion a year.

The range is important, as the lower amount reflects voter passage of Proposition 1B, the supplemental cash for K-12 education and community colleges.

But back to the accusation in the TV ad -- namely, that the Supplemental Budget Stabilization Account would be "a loophole that lets [lawmakers] spend billions on pork barrel projects outside the regular budget."

Let's take the last part of that... first. Sure, the money in this reserve account might possibly be spent using legislation separate from the actual budget bills approved by the Legislature and sent to the governor. But in some cases in recent times, reserve money has been appropriated using the actual budget. And either way, such an expenditure would likely eb subject to a supermajority vote -- which is as effective a check-and-balance as California has.

(By the way, the ad also says -- accurately -- that much of Prop 1A won't take effect for another two years.)

Now to the explosive accusation that the measure would allow "pork barrel spending," a term whose origins seem irrelevant in this era of its use as a catch all for 'a bad, politically motivated use of taxpayer dollars.'

Let's go the actual language of Prop 1A itself:

Funds in the Supplemental Budget Stabilization Account may be appropriated only for the purposes set forth in subparagraphs (B) or (C) of paragraph (4) of subdivision (c) of Section 21.

Gotta love that gobbledygook... that's why lawyers rule the world. Okay, so the bottom line is that money in this account can only be used in two ways. And here are those ways, laid out farther down in the measure:

(B) Appropriation for one-time infrastructure or other capital outlay purposes.
(C) Appropriation to retire, redeem, or defease outstanding general obligation or other bonded indebtedness of the State.

Do those kinds of uses qualify as "pork barrel" spending? The anti-Prop 1A campaign says it might.

"Our view is that the infrastructure projects can be pork barrel spending," says campaign spokesman Mike Roth. And he says you don't have to look any further than the federal brouhaha known as the 'Bridge to Nowhere' to realize that infrastructure projects can have faults, too.

The campaign in support of Prop 1A, led by Governor Schwarzenegger and his allies, calls the ad "misleading," and says that the jobs of some of the same workers whose union paid for the ad could be in jeopardy if Prop 1A fails.

It's true that my analysis focuses on the small details of the ad. Of course, the ad itself ends with the college professor telling voters to read Prop 1A for themselves.

And it does tap into this feeling among many that ballot proposals this complex offer too few answers to the question, "what does it do?"

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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