Making Sense of the Very, Very Complicated Prop 31

(Justin Brockie:Flickr)

Among other items, Prop. 31 gives California's governor new powers over spending during a fiscal emergency. (Justin Brockie:Flickr)

Among the 11 propositions on the statewide ballot this fall is a measure that would bring sweeping changes in governance to California. As Rachael Myrow suggested Friday morning on The California Report, it would also win a prize for “most changes in one measure.” The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has identified nine big ideas in Prop 31.

To break it down, Myrow turned to John Myers, political editor for Sacramento television station KXTV.

Here’s the edited transcript of their conversation:

RACHAEL MYROW: Who’s behind the measure? What is “California Forward”?

There has been a long, raging debate in government reform circles about whether we need incremental change or large systemic change. I think Prop. 31 puts its foot in both categories.”

JOHN MYERS: California Forward is a bipartisan group, formed a few years ago to work on ideas about how to fix what’s broken in California governance. They’ve been bankrolled by foundations. Their political activity is mainly bankrolled by a billionaire international investor, and that political activity really focused on this initiative — which they got on the ballot with his help.

RACHAEL MYROW: They’ve held forums around the state in recent years talking about how to make California government more effective. What is it they propose with Prop. 31?

JOHN MYERS: They’ve got a lot of ideas  — nine separate ones that have been identified — and my sense after covering governance reform for awhile here in Sacramento is it’s like the old cafeteria restaurant. There’s a little bit of everything you could put on your tray in this one.

Prop. 31 makes changes to both state and local government. Here in Sacramento, its two biggest changes would be new power for the governor to cut spending, if needed, without any legislative approval and also a “pay-as-you-go” approach to new big-ticket programs. Legislators would have to identify a funding source when they want new programs.

On the local level, Prop. 31’s biggest change would be allowing communities new flexibility on spending and regulations — if they enact a new strategic plan. There are some rules for how they would have to do that. That would be big because it would mean that statewide regulations and money may no longer be applied the same all across the state. Those are just the biggest items in Prop. 31.

RACHAEL MYROW: Local, regional authorities deciding how they might use state money differently. Some people have said that could lead to a flurry of lawsuits. Is that your sense reading the proposition?

JOHN MYERS: I don’t know whether we can predict lawsuits. I certainly can see why opponents have latched onto that.

This is the danger in crafting things outside the political process. Sometimes that’s good because you don’t have political fighting, but sometimes if they haven’t been vetted in that process, perhaps you haven’t heard all the concerns. And one of the concerns I’ve heard in these “local action plans” – I believe is what Prop. 31 would call them – is that, say, you had one community in California that didn’t want strict environmental rules, or say they wanted to apply their funding dollars in a different way – if they have consensus in the local community, Prop. 31 seems to say they could do that. Other people would say, “Look, those rules are in place across California for very good reasons, and we should enforce them the same all across California.” That is one of the challenges here: how would that rule for local flexibility really be applied?

RACHAEL MYROW: You’ve covered the ins and outs of state budgeting for many years. What’s the most personally compelling idea here for you? 

JOHN MYERS: I don’t know if it’s compelling or intriguing – I’ll call it intriguing: it’s the power that Prop. 31 would give the governor. That’s a significant change in the power structure, letting the governor cut spending on his own or her own during a fiscal emergency. If people have heard of that before, that’s because we’ve voted on it before. Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger pushed something similar to that in 2005. That one was seen as a power grab and people said, “It’s a dictatorial governor.” Now I wonder what it will look like when think-tank folks have suggested it. Again, it’s part of a larger number of things, but that power shift between legislative power and gubernatorial power – if Prop. 31 passed – I think would be very interesting.

RACHAEL MYROW: Even for someone with a mail-in ballot and plenty of time to do research, this is a lot of stuff Prop. 31 is suggesting. I suppose backers would say you have to pack in as many ideas as possible when it costs $3 million a pop to get on the ballot, let alone campaign for the measure. But this is a lot of information for voters to make sense of.

JOHN MYERS: It is, and I think there are a couple of things worth noting for voters. The first of them is that there has been a long raging debate in government reform circles about whether we need incremental change — or large systemic change. I think Prop. 31 puts its foot in both categories here. This isn’t purely incremental change, there are nine separate items in it, and it’s a Constitutional amendment. But at the same time, some people say it doesn’t go big enough. We need a larger, grander scale thinking.

The other thing is that California Forward was negotiating with the legislature about trying to implement some of these changes and didn’t get there and as a result decided to put their ballot measure forward for the voters. There are some criticisms that say maybe it’s not fully cooked, maybe the legislature could take a look at this. What we see so far is that the voters don’t seem to know a lot about Prop. 31, and there’s not a huge political campaign out there, and we’re less than four weeks away from the election.

RACHAEL MYROW: Even though California Forward’s co-chair is Robert Herztberg, former Assembly Speaker, the California Democratic Party has not gotten behind Proposition 31. A number of prominent labor groups are opposed. Why are all these parties not behind Prop. 31?

JOHN MYERS: If you look at labor’s opposition to Prop. 31, we have one particular part – that is the rule that Prop. 31 would enact that says you have to identify funding sources for every new program that lawmakers here in Sacramento wanted to spend. They think that would act as a defacto state spending cap, that every time something would happen you’d have to cut from somewhere else so there’d be limitations on money and finances, and labor unions and Democrats have fought this idea of a spending cap – a cap on annual state spending — for years, conservatives and Republicans have pushed it. The opponents of 31 believe, primarily, that that’s what this is, and I think that’s why they’re fighting it.

RACHAEL MYROW: It’s received political wisdom that California voters, when in doubt about a proposition, typically vote no. What do the polls say so far?

JOHN MYERS: The polls are showing there’s a lot of undecideds in Prop. 31, somewhere upwards of a third of voters in some polls. In the final weeks, undecideds often tend to vote no. You’ve not seen a big political campaign. The financial backers have not put up money to run a big “Yes on 31” campaign. Some political consultants think it’s an orphaned measure at this point, in large part because it may not reflect a full decision making process about how to fix what’s wrong in California government. In these final weeks, will someone emerge to finance a big “Yes on 31” push at the end, or does it continue to trickle along, in which case, most people think the voters will say, “I don’t get it, so I’m going to vote no.”

RACHAEL MYROW: There was a recent big check written by the Nicholas Berggruen Institute, but I don’t know if that’s enough money to change the dynamics.

JOHN MYERS: It doesn’t look like it is. Mr. Berggruen, who is the billionaire investor that helped get it on the ballot, certainly has been interested in government reform. But it takes a lot of money to run a big statewide campaign, and especially at the end of a campaign, television advertisements, all of that start to cost even more, up to $4 million in this election cycle a week, for a big statewide TV buy. We haven’t seen that kind of money in Prop. 31. Without that kind of money and with a lot of confusion, maybe, among the voters, you might not get a yes, and it might fail.

Learn more:

A Supporter and Opponent Explain Prop. 31’s “Community Strategic Action Plans”

Listen to the discussion on KQED’s Forum:

  • Ann Wright

    This is complicated. I’m concerned for the environment and I believe the California Coastal commission does good work. However, I don’t believe that all or even most CA counties would get together to try to nullify the environmental regulations. I’ve only been living here for 8yrs. So with that handled, I think performance based budgets make sense.