Beware of Props. 51, 55, and 56 Wreaking Havoc on CA Budget

budget-constantin-cagle-Nov.-26-2013-300x203As a professor of public budgeting and someone who has worked their entire career analyzing public budgets, I can say that ballot box budgeting wreaks havoc on the California budget process and taxpayer interests.

Yet it is something that voters are so accustomed to doing that most average voters don’t even know what “ballot box budgeting” is.

In short, ballot box budgeting is the practice of making major budget decisions at the ballot box. And unlike the normal budget process, these decisions are commonly written into the California Constitution, and not subject to change in any way short of another ballot measure.  

The result is that funds are locked in to being spent for a particular purpose regardless of other budget needs and priorities, and commonly lack the same accountability and oversight that the rest of the California budget is subject to through the legislative process.

There are three measures on the November 2016 ballot that represent ballot box budgeting at its worst, and should be rejected — Proposition 51 School Bonds, Proposition 55 School Funding and Proposition 56 Tobacco Tax Increase. There is one other measure, Proposition 64 Marijuana Legalization and Tax, which represents ballot box budgeting, but is less egregious and is worthy of consideration on its policy merits given that marijuana is not currently legal and therefore not taxed at all but should be considered on policy grounds.

The reality is that nearly all initiatives have some type of budget impact, but initiatives that allocate a significant dollar amount of public funds should generally be looked at with great skepticism, particularly those that raise taxes or reallocate existing public funds in some way.

Another common element in ballot box budgeting is a “pay to play” element, characterized by a situation where special interests sponsor a ballot measure that allocates public funds that benefit their private financial interest.   All four initiatives mentioned above have a significant “pay to play” element, that should be considered as well, and viewed with great skepticism.

In generally all such cases, initiatives are sold as being crafted in the “common good” or for the “public interest” but the real motivation is to benefit the private interests that raised the money to quality the measure and run a support campaign.

For example, Prop. 51 authorizes $9 billion in general obligation bonds for construction of K-12 public schools.  The construction of school facilities is done through a process at the local level, with state bond funds providing a state match, but this local process has come under great fire in the media recently, largely due to California Treasurer John Chiang’s efforts.

Treasurer Chiang has stopped short of criticizing Prop. 51 specifically but he has came down hard on the local municipal bond process as being a “pay to play” process that “rips-off taxpayers,” according to Treasurer Chiang’s press release.

Chiang says this “pay to play” process rewards special interests including developers, bondholders, and construction companies who offer to fund local bond campaigns in exchange for lucrative contracts, which are “no bid” contracts in many cases.

“Not only are these “pay-to-play” arrangements unlawful, they rip off taxpayers and endanger the integrity of school bonds,” Treasurer John Chiang declared, noting that between 2012-15 K-12 school districts issued $43.8 billion in long-term debt.

Without cleaning up this “corrupt” process, Prop. 51 essentially puts $9 billion in public funds at risk for misallocation by school districts and public agencies.  And will subject taxpayers to huge future costs, for spending with questionable public benefits given the process through which these bonds are issued under the current system.

Of course, the same special interests who benefit from this “pay to play” process are the primary proponents of Prop. 51, and are putting up millions of dollars to lock in these lucrative contracts for public bond spending.  A number of local districts are also proposing local bonds on the November 2016 ballot to provide a local match for these highly questionable public projects.

Prop. 55 is the example of another measure which might appear legitimate on its face because it raises money for “schools” and “health programs.”   But should also be rejected on ground of being a terrible case of “ballot box budgeting” and “pay to play” corruption of the state’s initiative process.

Prop. 55 extends the Prop. 30 (2012) income tax increases taxes on individuals and small businesses, which expire at the end of 2017, for another 12 years until 2030.  The effort is being sold as being a legitimate effort to fund schools and health care because Prop. 30 is something that the Governor, Legislature and business community agreed on back in 2012.

But Prop. 55 is not the same as the deal cut back in 2012, and should be rejected.  First, Prop. 55 is much more expensive, nearly twice as expensive as Prop. 30—and represents an $8-11 billion tax increase, as opposed to a $6.5 billion annual hit from Prop. 30.  Secondly, the measure is not “temporary,” and results in a broken promise Governor and Legislature made to voters in 2012—that’s why Governor Brown says he will not endorse Prop. 55.

Lastly, Prop. 55 adds a significant “pay to play” element as well by giving private hospital interests a piece of the action.  Specifically, Prop. 55 locks in another $2 billion in funding for “health programs,” which did not even exist in Prop. 30, and is a pure handout to the hospital interests which have already contributed more than $21 million to the Yes on Prop. 55 Campaign.

Public employee union interests get the bulk of the funds, estimated at $75 billion over 12 years, in salary and benefit spending primarily but the public generally does not view them as being the same type of “special interest” as purely private interests.  Yet, these public employee union interests have put up another $18 million thus far to support Prop. 55, and stand to reap huge rewards for their members and dues increases if Prop. 55 passes.

From a ballot box budgeting perspective, both Prop. 55 and the Prop. 56 $2 per pack tobacco tax increase are terrible budget policy because they lock in significant expenditure of public funds that will be allocated outside of the state’s annual budget process without regard to actual need or other pressing spending priorities.

Prop. 55 locks in $8-11 billion in spending with the bulk going for education, but another $2 billion going to “health care” programs—again not allocated according to need or the accountability standards under the state’s annual budget process which subjects all public spending to annual review.  Prop. 56 locks in another $1-1.4 billion in health care spending that will be allocated outside the state’s budget process.

Voters are encouraged to reject Propositions 51, 55, and 56 on grounds that they are terrible examples of “ballot box budgeting,” in which special interests put up millions of dollars, even tens of millions of dollars, to try to pass “public interest” measures with the expectation of a big payday at taxpayer expense for the years to come.

David Kersten is executive director of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy (www.kersteninsitute.org). He is an expert on fiscal issues and teaches a masters’ course on public budgeting for the University of San Francisco.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California budget vote dominates agenda

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

Working under a midnight deadline to pass a budget, lawmakers face a busy day – though still likely a smoother endeavor than the protracted, head-banging budget battles of yore.

Central pieces of the budget deal announced last week include a hefty deposit into the state’s rainy day fund, $1.3 billion for new state office work (potentially including Capitol renovations) and the repeal of a rule denying welfare payments for new kids that lawmakers have attacked for years as cruel and counterproductive. Some other pieces of note:

▪  Affordable housing has vaulted up the agenda this year. But Gov. Jerry Brown isn’t offering money for nothing: if lawmakers want hundreds of millions for lower-cost accommodations, Brown wants them to agree to controversial language easing barriers to local building.

▪ The politically perilous vehicle registration fee would increase by $10, though a long-sought transportation funding deal still hasn’t coalesced. …

CA’s cap-and-trade program faces daunting hurdles to avoid collapse

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

The linchpin of California’s climate change agenda, a program known as cap and trade, has become mired in legal, financial and political troubles that threaten to derail the state’s plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The program has been a symbol of the state’s leadership in the fight against global warming and a key source of funding, most notably for the high-speed rail project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But the legality of cap and trade is being challenged in court by a business group, and questions are growing about whether state law allows it to operate past 2020. With the end of the legislative session in August, Gov. Jerry Brown, lawmakers and interest groups of all stripes are laying the groundwork for what could become a battle royal over the future of California’s climate change programs. …

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Increase In CA Vehicle Registration Fee

As reported by Capital Public Radio:

The state will charge Californians more to put their cars on the roads next year as part of the state budget deal reached by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.

The agreement includes a $10 per year increase in the vehicle registration fee that funds the Department of Motor Vehicles and California Highway Patrol. It’s effective April 1, 2017.

The governor proposed the hike in January (see bottom of pg 7 in the link). His Department of Finance says without the increase, the state would need to make “significant budgetary cuts” such as reducing the number of CHP officers on patrol and closing DMV field offices.

The vehicle fee, currently $43, would increase to $53. It would then continue to rise incrementally based on the California Consumer Price Index. …

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Budget Deception: Weird Accounting Diminishes Accountability

BudgetThis week, after reaching agreement with Gov. Brown, the California Legislature will pass the state budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. In so doing, it will meet its Constitutional deadline of June 15th.

A few weeks ago, this column attempted to provide some clarity to ordinary citizen taxpayers on basic state budget issues. This included an explanation of the difference between “general fund” expenditures and “special fund” expenditures. The column also reviewed California’s higher than average level of taxation and its legendary wasteful practices.

Those budget issues are confusing enough but there is something else going on that confounds even those of us who have at least some familiarity with government finance. Specifically, California has manipulated accounting rules that are, at best, confusing and, at worse, intended to conceal the true condition of state finances.

For most folks, figuring out the family finances isn’t all that difficult. Most people have a relatively stable and predictable amount of income they can spend and, on the flip side, they have a pretty good grasp of their expenses. Of course, even the best laid plans can be thrown off with the layoff of a breadwinner or, on the positive side, an unexpected bonus or inheritance.

But with government, predicting revenue can be tricky. Given this unpredictability, one would think that the state would want to base its accounting decisions on best practices. But that isn’t the case at all. Without going into all the wonkish details, the Department of Finance uses various “accrual” techniques to attribute revenue, not to the year in which it was received, but rather to a previous or future fiscal year depending on what political ends the administration seeks to achieve. Venerable Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters calls this “hide the pea” accounting and even the Legislature’s own Legislative Analyst has criticized the practice.

For all the funky accounting on the revenue side, it is much worse on the spending side. Here, under proper “accrual” rules, California should be counting the massive amount of debt we’re racking up differently. But with manipulative accounting, the state can actually spend more money than it receives in a given year and still report a budget surplus. This debt, as it relates to public employee pension obligations, is nothing more than spending tomorrow’s money today. But if it is spending money today, it should be counted as such.

David Crane is a Lecturer in Public Policy at Stanford University and president of Govern For California who has written extensively on California’s deceptive accounting practices. He points out that proper accounting could have stopped the largest non-voter-approved debt issuance in California history. That 1999 debt was not a bond. Rather, it was retroactive pension increase for state employees. Had that cost been “booked” the way businesses account for future liabilities, the legislature may very well have thought twice about undertaking such a huge financial burden.

The good news is that the days of deceptive government accounting may be numbered. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board has, for the last several years, been forcing government entities to finally begin reporting pension obligations and “Other Post-Employment Benefits” in a way that is both more honest and transparent. Also, the California Legislature now has as a member Senator John Moorlach, a no-nonsense accountant who predicted the Orange County bankruptcy several years ago. He, like Crane, is shining a light on California’s budgetary shenanigans. With a looming downturn in the economy, this enhanced transparency will be critical.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Excessive State Budget Pushed Forward by Dems

BudgetThursday, Sacramento Democrats all voted in support of a budget that has an unknown cost, but is estimated to easily exceed the governor’s record-level budget spending that he proposed just two weeks ago. The Assembly’s current budget proposal is essentially a blank check committed to using record levels of taxes collected for a laundry list of bloated bureaucracies and wasteful projects.

This new budget proposal hides unilateral government plans to increase fees on every car owner and taxes on every cellphone user in California. Wasteful projects like the high speed rail are rewarded with $145 million of additional largesse. Furthermore, mismanaged bureaucracies such as Caltrans receive increased funding with zero oversight while California drivers experience worst in the nation traffic conditions.

On top of the $10 yearly vehicle registration fee hike and nearly 400 percent cellphone tax increase, some of the other highlights from the Democrats’ “Blank Check” Budget include a $145.2 million appropriation for high-speed rail, $2.1 billion for an “optional” Obamacare expansion, and an additional $3.2 billion for the recently raised minimum wage.
Undoubtedly, the constant flow of high profile businesses leaving California will only accelerate with the Legislative Democrat’s budget proposals. Costly new mandates like the $15/hr minimum wage and highest in the nation taxes have prompted CEO magazine to once again name California as the worst state in which to do business, a distinction it has held every year the survey has been conducted.

Simply put, California voters need to clearly understand that the Democrat agenda of higher taxes, unending regulations, and “blank check” government spending has led California off the cliff and resulted in massive debt, job scarcity, and the nation’s highest poverty rate. June and November elections are coming, and it’s time for Californians to stand up and just say no to Democrats and their free spending ways.

This piece was originally published by the Flash Report

What CA Taxpayers Need to Know About Gov. Brown’s New Budget

BudgetAverage taxpayers in California are probably aware that the state budget was in the news again over the weekend. But even folks who follow both presidential politics and local issues probably couldn’t be blamed if they tune out stories about the California budget. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that public finance issues can be horribly confusing and difficult to follow.

In terms of timing, the process itself is easy to grasp. The annual budget year runs from July 1st to June 30th of the following year. That’s why people refer to a single budget using two years. For example, the budget currently being discussed is the 2016-2017 budget. The Constitution requires that the governor present a budget in January and that the Legislature enact the budget by June 15th. Because state bean counters and analysts don’t have a full grasp of the economy or revenue projections in January, the governor’s budget goes through an update, or “revision,” in May. It was this May “revise” that the governor presented on Friday that has been in the latest news cycle.

But perhaps the most confusing aspect of the state budget is the fact that many of the numbers that are bandied about are inconsistent. Thus, an average citizen might hear on the radio that the state budget is $122 billion dollars. And yet, when they get home, they read that spending is actually $173 billion. At this point they are more apt to turn on the Giants v. Dodgers game rather than make sense of the huge disparity.

The inconsistency in these budget numbers usually is attributable to the fact that there is a big difference between “general fund” spending and total state spending which includes “special funds.” General fund revenue comes from the state income tax, sales tax, corporate tax and a handful of other sources. “Special funds” come from the gas tax and fees from regulatory programs like cap and trade funds. For average taxpayers, the worst example of “special fund” revenue consists of the illegal CalFire “fee” which slams property owners with hundreds of dollars of additional property taxes. The legality of the CalFire fee is currently being challenged in court.

When it comes to the state budget, citizen taxpayers are justified in being both confused and angry. Not a day goes by without some scandal surfacing about those who spend our tax dollars. Whether it is the Bay Bridge, which exceeded the original cost estimate by a factor of six, or California’s feckless policies that have driven up state debt so high that, were the state a private company, it would be immediately eligible for bankruptcy.

As should be expected, California has the largest state budget in the United States. But what should not be expected or tolerated is the hostility of our political leaders toward those of us who pay the bills. California has the highest income tax rate in America as well as the highest state sales tax. Our fuel costs are also the highest due to both the current gas tax and environment regulations. The result of these policies has been an accelerated exodus from the state by both businesses and individuals. It should be painfully obvious even to the Governor and left-leaning legislators that you can’t have a vibrant state budget unless you have a vibrant economy.

Finally, Gov. Brown, while not officially endorsing a proposal to retain California’s sky-high income tax rates, implicitly endorsed it by noting that the state would be in a deficit situation if the measure didn’t pass in California. But this deficit projection is only attributable to higher state costs due to the foolish policies of elected leaders, not state revenues which are actually increasing faster than population and inflation.

The real cure for California’s budget woes is a combination of policies that would make California competitive in the global economy, not higher taxes and more burdensome regulations.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

CA budget: Gov. Brown to shrink spending plan

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

SACRAMENTO — Repeating calls for fiscal restraint and seeking to lower expectations about how much more the state can afford, Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday released an updated $122.2 billion state budget that’s slightly smaller than the blueprint he pitched in January.

Tax collections outpaced the governor’s conservative estimates and forced him to increase the size of the general fund spending plan each of the last few years. This time, the $454 million revision came as Brown acknowledged that revenue growth had stalled.

The governor blamed the slump on an unexpected dip in the notoriously volatile capital-gains taxes collected by the state on the sale of stocks and bonds and said managing the state budget is “like riding a tiger.”

“The surging tide of revenue has begun to turn,” Brown said. “Quoting Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper: ‘It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.’ “

Blockbuster deals Brown struck with the …

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A Continuing Dependence On High Income Taxpayers

In releasing his proposed budget last week, Governor Brown warned of over reliance on the “volatile personal income tax which, as history shows us, drops precipitously in time of recession.” He further cautioned that changes in the income of a relatively small group of taxpayers can have a significant impact on state revenues.”

He’s not exaggerating. As California’s economy has recovered, it’s gotten more crowded at the top. The share of taxes being paid on ever higher income tax collections is concentrating even more the share of taxes on upper income taxpayers. This trend has accelerated since 2012’s Proposition 30 tax increase.

According to recently-released, but still dated, statistics from Franchise Tax Board, state income tax filers with more than $200,000 adjusted gross income increased their share of overall tax payments in 2012 to 67%, up from 59% in 2010. (This share is slightly lower than record 71% in 2013, due to unusual shifting of capital gains income to the 2012 tax year because of federal tax rate changes.)

The economy has only improved since 2012, so the steeply progressive income tax doubtlessly has pushed this tax burden even higher. With capital gains receipts at record levels, it is likely that upper-income taxpayers will again pay north of 70 percent of the state’s income tax this year.

At the same time, the income tax has become the overwhelming source for the state’s General Fund. This year income taxes account for 67.6 percent of all general revenues – a record high dependence on this revenue source. Translation: little more than 800,000 taxpayers (out of 39 million residents) will account directly for 47% of all General Fund revenues.

Tying state finances to such a small number of upper income earners is very risky. As the Governor warned, what goes up inevitably will come back down. This trend underscores the wisdom of California voters in adopting the Proposition 2 rainy day reserve in 2012, to hedge against further downturns. Lawmakers should do their part by keeping a tight rein on spending and improving the state’s investment climate.

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This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

resident of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education.

CA Budget About HOW We Spend … Not Just How Much

Jerry Brown Legislature BudgetGov. Brown’s opening general fund budget gambit of $122.6 billion – total spending including bond and special funds is $170.7 billion – sets a new record for state government spending.  That the big increases are coming from the man many regard as one of the more sane of Sacramento’s top politicians does not bode well for taxpayers. After all, this is just a starting point.  Now the real fun begins with those less well grounded in economic reality starting the annual ritual of “making it rain” for their favorite projects and special interest employers.

To the governor’s credit, he is paying attention to paying down debt and strengthening the state’s rainy day reserve, a wise move considering that state revenue is highly dependent on top earners and is thus very vulnerable to an economic contraction.

Still, leading Democratic lawmakers want more – a lot more.  They are already complaining that that the budget does not spend enough on early childcare programs, grants to families on welfare, or provide more money for affordable housing.

Let’s concede at the outset that Californians have widely divergent views about how much money should go to all the various things government does. For example, there is a legitimate debate about how much money we, the taxpayers, should be paying to deal with the water crisis. Or how much for K-12 education? Prisons?  The list is fairly extensive.

But too often we neglect a very important topic when it comes to spending. That is, are we actually getting value for our tax dollars?  Per pupil education spending is important, but a poor indicator of educational outcomes. Total spending on prisons is irrelevant if we are releasing dangerous criminals back out on the street. Californians are angry at traffic congestion, but what good is more transportation spending if it doesn’t actually help people get to where they want to go? Californians are sympathetic to the needs of the poor, but are justifiably outraged when needed assistance fails to get to the truly needed and, instead, is used to buy luxury goods or pay for expensive vacations.

We know that Governor Brown is capable of recognizing waste, fraud and abuse. Just a few years ago he put forth a very credible 12 point pension reform plan that would have corrected most of the pension abuses in California. Regrettably, except for dealing with the most obvious of abuses, the reforms were shelved due to intense pushback from public sector unions. This means that the ever increasing percentage of the general fund budget going to address pension obligations is more than it needs to be.

Taxpayer advocates are constantly told that the amount of tax dollars lost to waste, fraud and abuse is but a tiny fraction of government spending. To be blunt, we don’t believe it – and mounds of evidence supports our disbelief. Even the Los Angeles Times several years ago pegged Medi-Cal fraud in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

To understand why more focus in the budget process should be on oversight, the observations of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman are instructive. He noted that there are four ways people can spend money:

  1. You can spend your own money for yourself. (Being careful both about how much you spend and on what you buy);
  2. You can spend your own money for somebody else. (Being careful about how much you spend but less careful about what you buy);
  3. You can spend somebody else’s money for yourself. (Being careful about what you buy but less careful about how much you spend); and
  4. You can spend somebody else’s money for somebody else. (Where you care less both about how much you spend and what you buy).

Friedman’s thesis is that what government does is spend money in the fourth way. And that is why any discussion about the California state budget needs to include the question of whether taxpayers are getting value for the hard-earned dollars they send to Sacramento.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Originally published by at HTJA.org