Gov. Jerry Brown/Molly Unger
Gov. Jerry Brown and wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Unger are squaring off with competing tax measures for the November ballot.
The contest between two competiting ballot initiatives expected to qualify for the fall ballot -- Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax on income and sales, and civil rights attorney Molly Munger's temporary income tax for schools and early childhood programs -- has been thoroughly dissected as a contest over tax policy.
But it's also a battle over reform of local governance -- a process that Brown, taking a page from a early '90s move to shift responsibility for mental health and indigent health programs to the counties, has called "realignment."
Indeed, the fight between the initiatives may be more important as a contest over visions of local government. Because the taxes in their measures are temporary -- while the changes in local government could be permanent.
What's the difference?
Brown's complicated measure extends his realignment -- which consists of giving local governments more authority over certain areas (criminal justice and corrections so far) and sending them some--but not all--of the money they need to do the job. Much of the tax revenues he would raise in his measure go to providing funding to locals for his realignment plans, though the money does pass through the state.
Munger's initiative is simpler and more direct. It raises taxes at the state level -- and sends them directly to school districts (some of the money is siphoned off to fund new programs for early childhood). This is an end run around the current system.
Neither of these plans is particularly bold. Brown's realignment builds in many ways on the current broken budget system. Munger's doesn't fix it -- it just carves a path around it. Either way, the system remains in place, and it's not clear that either approach represents progress for the state. Both also make the mistake of establishing a permanent change in governance -- Brown's includes a new constitutional guarantee for local governments -- with temporary taxes. Such structures can add to the state's troubles long-term.
But Munger's is likely to be more attractive, since the money she raises gets to schools more directly (Brown is foolishly touting his initiative as a school measure, even though the money is likely to end up in the budget maw and in local governments; a comparison on schools will hurt his initiative and boost Munger).
As a matter of policy, both duck what's really needed: restoring the ability of local governments to raise revenues themselves for the programs they measure. Such a change is crucial for accountability and democracy -- because the elected officials responsible for a program should be responsible for raising the money for it.
Instead Munger and Brown both raise money at the state level to send to locals for their programs. It's precisely this way of doing things that has made California's budget process such an undemocratic process.
Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).