The Modifying Measures, Props 1D & 1E

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It's one of the maxims of California politics: what the voters do, often only the voters can undo.

And that's the real story of Proposition 1D and Proposition 1E, both which were placed on the ballot by the Legislature in hopes of funneling more money into the state's beleaguered general fund. Of course, they also would mean money taken from programs voters endorsed in 1998 and 2004.

Our radio report on the measures aired this morning on The California Report.

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The two measures are not identical; one makes only temporary changes in funding for mental health programs, the other both temporary and permanent changes in money earmarked for early childhood development programs. But they've been lumped together, even by foes, largely because they represent an effort in the February budget package to cobble together enough revenue to make the books balance... and... because they are dollars that only the voters can release.

Combined, Props 1D and 1E would provide about $838 million for the budget year that begins on July 1, and a few hundred million dollars in the next few fiscal years after that. Prop 1D takes about half the tobacco tax revenues that voters earmarked for early childhood development programs in 1998. Prop 1E takes money from a 1% tax on personal incomes above $1 million that voters set aside for mental health programs in 2004.

"It's a nightmare," said Rusty Selix of the Mental Health Association in California. "It's obviously a worse scenario than any that we foresaw when we were writing the initiative."

Selix says that nightmare has only intensified since legislators placed Prop 1E on the ballot back in February, because the economic slowdown has meant lower incomes for California millionaires... meaning there will be less money than originally earmaked for mental health... and, as a result, Prop 1E won't just be using what's been described as surplus funds.

"There's no way of taking this money out of the system without reducing the amount that will be spent," says Selix of mental health programs funded by what was approved by voters as Proposition 63.

Over in the world of early childhood development programs, the dollar amounts at stake the May 19 election would take away are larger... and, in some cases, permanent. Prop 1D would modify the voter-approved Proposition 10, which increased the tax levied on tobacco to fund early childhood development programs, through commissions on both the state and local levels.

Prop 1D's impact on the state commission would probably be the most long lasting, and comes after some well-publicized battles about how some dolllars are spent.

"The more we looked at, the more concerned that we became," says Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), the Legislature's most prominent advocate for shifting money out of the early childhood programs. Cox admits that some programs are effective, but nonetheless thinks the voters have the right to change their minds. The campaign in support of Prop 1D says the measure would help fund other child-focused programs inside the state budget.

Some opponents, though, see that very fact as a lose-lose situation. One of those is Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network. Siegel says programs designed to help parents find quality child care are funded by both Prop 10 dollars and the state's deficit-ridden general fund. If Prop 1D passes, her programs are hurt; if it fails, they'll also be hurt.

"It's really a Sophie's Choice," she said last week during a rally at the state Capitol.

Some typical supporters of childhoood and mental health programs are, this time, on the other side. The most high profile of these is Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who co-authored the Prop 63 millionaire's tax five years ago.

"It is awkward," he admitted in a recent interview, but then added: "Given the choices, and given the impact on other health and human services programs, I felt like this really is a budget about shared sacrifice."

Setting aside those issues for a moment, the proposals are also another example of the novelties inside the system in which California governance -- where voters, not elected officials, are in the driver's seat. 2004's Prop 63 is a good example of a measure that, as an initiative statute, would play out differently in another state.

"In most initiative states, the Legislature would have been able to make this kind of change without going back to the voters," says Floyd Feeney, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

(In the case of Prop 1D, the initiative it seeks to change -- Prop 10 -- was an amendment to the state constitution.)

And here's one more twist, one which makes it easier to understand why so many of these decisions are on the ballot: both Prop 10 and Prop 63 established new taxes through a simple majority vote of the people. For a new tax to be enacted at the state Capitol, it takes a supermajority vote of the Legislature.

Prop 63 author Rusty Selix is quick to point out that the supermajority vote for a tax hike in the Legislature was created... and still supported by... the voters. (Prop 63, on the other hand, got 54% of the vote in November 2004.)

"They're not going to make it easier for the Legislature to raise taxes," he says. "We'd prefer you could make decisions on a rational basis in the legislative process. But the fact is, that is the California we live with."

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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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