And now, the least surprising news of the political year: the special election called by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to help solve the state's budget dilemma was a bust.
The voters have spoken. And their very loud answer on the five budget-related ballot measures with real impact: no.
There's a risk in playing crime scene investigator before the smoke has fully cleared. Still, it's hard to deny some of the more obvious reasons for Tuesday's train wreck, things that most everyone in California politics has been talking about for weeks...
* A Fatal Case of 'Insider-Itis': The simple truth is that the package of budget proposals now in the dustbin was shaped more by raw politics than reasoned public policy. Or to paraphrase an oldie but a goodie, they didn't play in Pomona (or Pismo Beach... or Portola...) the way that they did under the Capitol dome in late February.
A $16 billion tax increase linked to a spending limit? Sure, that might have been the only way to get the bare minimum of GOP legislators to sign on to the pledge-busting tax hike... while similarly forcing Dems to accept a spending formula they probably hated. Linking the spending limit proposal to a $9 billion proposal to spend more money on education? True, that helped bring the powerful California Teachers Association on board to support both measures, and they were the major power behind the defeat of Governor Schwarzenegger's last budget reform attempt. Borrow money from the California Lottery? Hey, easier that finding the political will for another $5 billion in less risky solutions.
But in the end, the package of measures never found a core group of supporters. The left may have loved the extra cash for education, but it hated the spending limit. The right might have gone along with most of the package, except for the additional -- and large -- tax hike. Others hated the borrowing, or the raid on child and mental health programs. Outside of political circles, the package didn't make as much sense. And the voters, already sour in the midst of an historic recession, saw no reason to ratify the complicated package.
* No, You Didn't Have To: The final pitch made by the chief executive salesman was that there was no other way to solve the problem than go to the voters. "Any time we change any of those initiatives that have been voted on by the people," Schwarzenegger said on Sunday, "the people have to go back and vote on it again... otherwise, we would be doing all the work just in Sacramento and we wouldn't ask them always to come out and vote for those things."
The guv was right about what's needed to modify most initiatives, but his answer missed a fact that voters understood from the get-go: lawmakers did have other ways to resolve the deficit. While Propositions 1C, 1D, and 1E represented $6 billion of the $40 billion deficit solution enacted in February, they were an end run around the two tools over which legislators and governors have complete control: spending cuts and tax increases. Again, the $16 billion in extra taxes over the next few years (linked to Prop 1A) didn't technically need the electorate's blessing. And in the end, the voters didn't buy the sales pitch that they had to solve the problem.
* Mixed Messages: Political campaigns are best when they have a simple, easy-to-understand message, and unwieldy when that message is a muddled mess. In this campaign, the main alliance in support of all six measures began by selling reform, then pivoted to a warning of disaster, all the while leaving voters to weigh whether the proposals were a short-term fix or a long-term solution. And most vexing: the $6 billion in budget solutions that Schwarzenegger and others began pleading with voters to ratify in the final days weren't even mentioned in the TV ads, which focused on two measures with no short-term fiscal help (and one that actually would cost the state billions). Insiders will no doubt speculate as to why that happened -- maybe the campaign's big donors were most interested in Proposition 1A and Proposition 1B, and not so much in the three that offered up immediate budget cash? Still, it left supporters with a muddled message about why the voters should care: long-term fix? short-term rescue package? stop those crazy politicians? As we know now, that made it easy for voters to just throw their hands up at the whole lot.
* Been There, Done That: Perhaps most challenging for the 'Yes' campaign was the lingering sense among voters, noted by both pollsters and journos who talked to "RPs" (real people), that we'd already fixed the structural budget problem. Part of that perception stems from the strong sales job the governor did in 2004 for passage of the balanced budget amendment, Proposition 58. Maybe too strong.
Consider what he said to a roaring Los Angeles crowd on election night in March 2004 about Prop 58:
Never again can our state spend more money than it takes in. Never again will our politicians deficit finance their spending habits. And never again will our state be driven to the verge of bankruptcy. Never again!
But in most years afterwards, the state budget kept dipping into the red, and the problems continued. Last week, Schwarzenegger admitted as much in a Capitol press conference:
It was not written tight enough. So we have learned from that. It's no different than when we sometimes pass legislation and the next year we come down and we fix the legislation because it was not written exactly the way it was intended to be written.
That's a fair point about the process of government. But the voters aren't legislators; when someone says "never again," they actually believe it. The governor's statement suggests nuance, something that's non-existent when he is on the campaign trail. As Joe Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote a book chronicling the early Schwarzenegger administration, told me for a story I filed for NPR last week: "This is a man who does not have the soft sell in him. His entire life has been about selling things as big and over-the-top."
* The Voters Can't Solve It: And lastly, this is now the second fizzled special election in four years where voters overwhelmingly took a pass (save for the feel-good Proposition 1F, which appears to have won handily tonight). Maybe it'll finally make it clear that the voters can't solve the state's fiscal chaos. As recent surveys have shown, Californians oppose almost all tax hikes that would bring in a sizeable amount of revenue, while they also bafflingly oppose most substantive spending cuts. And elected officials have never rejected that 'have-it-both-ways' dynamic -- on the contrary, they've embraced it... with Republicans defending one side of the electoral brain, Democrats defending the other. In other words, perhaps the conventional wisdom is wrong; perhaps elected officials aren't unresponsive to the will of the people... perhaps they're too responsive.