Dear upper-middle-class Californians: How’s life in Palo Alto? Piedmont? San Marino? Carmel? Santa Barbara? Pretty nice, I imagine. Actually, I don’t need to imagine. I know. See, I’m just like you. I used to live in one of the Golden State’s golden towns. My parents still do. Now I live in something like it, except on the other coast. I’d move back if I could, but you people have made the place too expensive. And now you’re in danger of making it worse.
No, I don’t mean Jerry Brown’s proposed tax hike, or even Molly Munger’s—dismal as they both are. Believe it or not, an even worse ballot measure is vying for your attention in the guise of budget reform. It’s called Proposition 31 and it shares all of the worst features of California’s baleful initiative process.
Prop. 31 is long: not quite as long as the Obamacare law, but at more than 9,000 words, long enough that no one will read it apart from its authors. Prop. 31 is mysterious, its authorship hidden behind goo-goo names such as “California Forward”—a joint venture of California Common Cause, the Center for Governmental Studies, the New California Network, and the Commonwealth Club, which in turn are funded by the California Endowment, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Supplementing the foundations are billionaires, above all Nicolas Berggruen, a Frenchman whose political hobby is working to make California more like Europe.
Prop. 31 is complicated: once again Californians will go to the polls to vote on something designed to confuse them. The proposal’s 17 sections are impossible to summarize. They range from simple stuff, like a requirement that bills be published three days before a vote, to byzantine new budget-making rules. Prop. 31 is messianic: in the grand tradition of 1990’s failed Prop. 128, the Big Green initiative (“Save the planet!”), and 1988’s fiscally disastrous Prop. 98 (“Fix the schools!”), Prop. 31 also promises voters the moon. Californians are rightly fed up with their dysfunctional government. The measure promises to fix everything at one stroke.
Finally, Prop. 31 is a Trojan horse. This is the crux of the matter. The truly game-changing initiatives in California history, with the exception of the landmark Proposition 13, have never been about what they’re ostensibly about. Prop. 98, sold as the “Classroom Instructional Improvement and Accountability Act,” was in fact a giveaway to the teachers’ unions that mandates ever-rising spending on “schools,” which is to say, teacher salaries. It sharply limits the legislature’s defining power—the power of the purse—and thus the people’s control over what their government can and cannot do. And that was the whole point, not that its backers would ever admit as much.
The Greeks lying in wait within Prop. 31 are the measure’s provisions concerning “regional collaboration.” What could be wrong with that? Nothing, except that “collaboration” implies consent, and Prop. 31 allows for nothing of the sort. Stanley Kurtz and Wayne Lusvardi have done yeoman’s work in explaining how this little-noticed but all-important aspect of Prop. 31 would work in practice. If passed, the measure would institute “Strategic Area Plans” (SAPs) that supposedly allow local governments to work together across city and county lines. This of course can be done now, so what’s the point? The fact is, the new committees set up to run the SAPs would not be elected. Their members would be appointed by the bureaucrats and legislators in Sacramento, which has been overwhelmingly Democratic for the last 25 years (except for a brief period in 1995, when the state assembly had a Republican speaker).
Anyone who understands California government can see where this is going. California has never lost its progressive faith in “good government” and the ability of “nonpartisan” experts to solve any problem, real or imagined. The state government is infested with unelected, anti-democratic boards and commissions with near-total power over their designated subjects. The SAPs created under Prop. 31 would be boards and commissions on steroids, with the power to do virtually anything—but only with Sacramento’s approval, which in practice means anything liberal. The SAPs’ most important power would involve revenue sharing: they could force richer, better-managed municipalities into regional arrangements with poorer, badly managed cities, siphoning off the wealthier entities’ tax money to pay for supposedly jointly beneficial projects.
So, my upper-middle-class friends, do you see how all this imperils your standard of living? The reason you live in Piedmont, and not in nearby basket-case Oakland, is that you want decent services, including schools, and you’re happy to pay for them. Your sky-high property taxes are, in effect, your tuition. (Anyone living in the San Francisco or Los Angeles Unified School Districts and able to afford private school is, for the purposes of this discussion, upper-class.) If Prop. 31 passes, you will either have to pay much more for the privilege—upsetting the careful affordability calculations that went into the purchase of that nice home of yours—or else accept dramatically degraded services, which might force you into a private school you hadn’t factored into your budget. Remember, just because your schools are likely to get worse doesn’t mean your taxes will go down; in fact, they’ll probably go up. Of course, you can do what millions of middle-class Californians have been doing for the past two decades: move to another state.
Prop. 31 is not merely a threat to California’s still-thriving upper middle class. It’s a dagger aimed at the heart of modern California. A few years ago, a national-security analyst divided the world between the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrating Gap.” Applying that same concept to California, we might come up with the “Functioning Coast” and the “Non-Thriving Core.” Life is nice, if expensive, on the Functioning Coast. California needs that coast and its people to survive. They run and staff the high-profile, high-profit industries that keep the state moving. They generate the lion’s share of the tax revenue that funds its bloated government and keeps the interior from total collapse. Make life on the coast more expensive, or less nice, and you topple the whole house of cards.
That’s what is at stake with Prop. 31. Californians may not be able to save the Golden State this November, but they can avoid making it substantially worse. I want to come home someday. It would be nice if there were a home to return to.
(Michael Anton is an author and a speechwriter based in New York. Originally posted on City Journal.)