Lessons for Liberals in California

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 9, 2006

When it comes to spending their tax money, voters can be wary even of very good causes.

While the political world was obsessed with the Republican victory in a special election for a California congressional seat, the truly sobering news for liberals was in the statewide voting. Proposition 82, the ballot measure that would have guaranteed access to preschool for all of California's 4-year-olds, went down to resounding defeat, 61 to 39 percent.

Not only that, voters also rejected a $600 million bond measure for the state's libraries. A vote against libraries ? Yes, the bonds went down 53 to 47 percent.

And bear in mind that these spending measures appeared on a primary ballot at a time when Democrats were holding a fierce contest for their gubernatorial nomination, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faced only token Republican opposition. There were roughly 500,000 more Democratic than Republican primary votes -- meaning that a significant number of Democrats voted against both propositions.

Progressives can find plenty of alibis. Instead they need to deal with the sources of voter skepticism about public spending.

The preschool initiative seemed to have everything going for it. There is ample evidence that quality preschool really does improve the life chances of poor children. The measure had celebrity backing from Rob Reiner, the actor and director. The program was universal: It would have helped every child in California, not just the poor. And it was financed through substantial tax increases on only the very wealthiest Californians -- couples earning more than $800,000 a year and individuals earning over $400,000 a year. The vast majority of Californians would not have seen their taxes go up.

Almost all these assets became liabilities.

Reiner, whose enthusiasm for preschool is genuine and infectious, ran into controversy when it emerged that a state commission he chaired had spent $23 million promoting the value of early learning -- even as Reiner was organizing to put the initiative on the ballot. It sure looked like tax dollars were being used to promote an actor's favorite cause.

Because the measure covered everyone, including kids already in preschool, it was very expensive. The wealthy rebelled against the big income tax increase -- the top rate would have gone from 9.3 percent to 11 percent -- and bankrolled the opposition. Private preschool providers worried that the public provision of preschool would threaten their businesses.

There was also the good-government point: Californians have grown sensibly weary of "ballot-box budgeting," through which initiatives are used to mandate both programs and the tax increases to pay for them. That robs state officials of flexibility in times of budget turmoil, which Californians have experienced a lot of lately.

The library bond defeat is more puzzling, given that none of these factors was in play. But Californians will be voting this fall on an enormous ($47 billion) sum in infrastructure bonds. They may have been wary of adding another liability before they decided on the Big Enchilada.

Progressives have a lot to think about. For one thing, there remains a deep skepticism about government spending, even for the best purposes. On the same day the two propositions went down, voters in five California counties rejected sales tax increases, mostly to fund transportation projects. Attacks on tax-and-spend sound old and tired, but they still have force.

Higher taxes on the wealthy are a logical way to finance necessary programs, because the most well-off Americans have been posting much larger gains in income and wealth than the rest. But the well-to-do can still fend off such tax increases by creating rational doubts about what the money will be used for.

Hardest of all is the issue of "universality." In principle, programs that cover everyone -- Social Security and Medicare are prime examples -- are usually better programs and command broad political support. Programs for the poor alone are often less generous and have a shakier foundation in public opinion.

But universal programs carry large price tags. In retrospect, Reiner might have gotten closer to his honorable goal with a smaller program directed at the poorest kids and requiring a smaller tax increase. Is there a lesson here on how to expand health insurance coverage?

It gives me no joy to say these things, since I wish both California propositions had passed. But realism is not the enemy of idealism, and taxpayers aren't being selfish when they place a heavy burden on those who would ask them to part with some of their money. Advocates of public action need to meet that test.


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