To understand what happened, New America Media's Ngoc Nguyen spoke with A.G. Block, director of the public affairs journalism program at the University of California Center in Sacramento and former editor of the California Journal.
What message did California voters send at the polls yesterday and what was surprising to you?
I think, like everyone else, I was curious to see just how much the Tea Party influences would affect races across the country. It turned out to be a mixed message. In California, I was fairly confident that the Republican wave was not going to break over the Sierras. [But] if I was surprised by anything, it’s that the Republication candidates here…didn’t do better at the statewide level.
I would have expected some Republican candidates to get closer—for example, for Kamala Harris to lose—but it looks like she might win that race. She’s up by [15,000] votes with 6.5 million votes cast—that’s incredibly close. It’s emblematic when Republicans like Steve Cooley, who were expected to do well, didn’t. All the other races—insurance commissioner, treasurer, lieutenant governor, top ticket races, governor and U.S. Senate—Republicans didn’t capitalize on the mood in the rest of the country.
Why did California buck the trend and remain a blue state?
The anger that you see in the rest of the country is causing this flow of votes to Republicans. California went through that in 2003; we had that big moment when we recalled Gray Davis. We put in this candidate of change—Arnold. A few years later, we elected Obama [to be] the second candidate of change at the national level, and guess what? Nothing changed. California voters are not angry; they are despondent. If you’re angry, you tend to reach out and embrace people who say they will do things differently. When you’re despondent, you fall back on the stuff that’s safe to you.
Californians chose to stick with incumbents like Sen. Barbara Boxer and veteran politicians like Democrat Jerry Brown, but voters also said no to new taxes.
The proposition I’m curious about, because not only did it lose but it lost pretty significantly, is Prop. 21 [funding for state parks]. It had identified a revenue source, the vehicle license surcharge…so you pay about $20 a year…and you fund the parks and you get in free, but voters said no. Even where you had a defined revenue source, and what everybody sort of thinks of as a good-government expenditure, the voters said no. I’d be curious [what exit polling would find]. Could it be they just didn’t want any more spending? They didn’t trust government to use the money for what they said they were going to use it for? You could interpret this [result] as folks lacking trust in government even for something [relatively simple] like this.
Prop. 22 falls into the same category. It bans the state from seizing some local funding and the voters said yes to that. It shows a mistrust of state that’s been reflected in many, many polls over the last 18 months. The approval rate of the legislature and government has been plummeting. This is a vote along those same lines, not to trust state government to do the right thing.
Voters also passed two initiatives that dealt with supermajority votes in terms of the budget and fees imposed by the state.
The results on Prop. 25 and 26 don’t make any sense to me— you’re going to make it easier to pass a budget by doing away with a two-thirds vote, yet you’re going to impose it in place where it’s never been. Voters said: Yeah, we’ll allow you to pass a budget with a simple majority, we’ll allow you to pass a spending plan, but we’re not going to allow you to raise any fees or taxes unless you get a supermajority.
There were a lot of arguments made that Prop. 25 was really the camel’s nose under the tent, in terms of lowering the threshold to a simple majority to increase taxes. Clearly [Prop.] 25 was not designed to do that. It’s only to pass a budget. Voters on [Prop.] 26 came right back and said, we’re not going to allow you raise taxes or fees or anything unless you get a two-thirds vote. The Legislature can go off now and pass a balanced budget with a simple majority, but they can’t raise any revenue to actually pay for that balanced budget without a two-thirds vote. So it’s a half a loaf, which is the one reason the Sacramento Bee and others came out against Prop. 25. It didn’t go far enough.
Sounds like this will make things worse in Sacramento.
It’s a step forward and a step backward. [Prop. 25] is going to it easier to pass the budget, to get a vote on the floor. But I’m not sure it does anything for the process, because it still has to be a balanced budget.
Balanced budgets rely on revenue. If revenues are not coming in, if we’re still in a bad economy and the revenues are down, you can pass a balanced budget all you want if you’ve made the cuts. If you don’t have the money and you can’t raise taxes to pay for the spending you think you want to do, the majority vote is somewhat of a hollow victory because you still don’t have the resources to pay for the balanced budget. In fact, you’ve made it worse. You can’t just raise a fee with a majority vote now—can’t raise vehicle license fee anymore, as far as I can tell.
If nothing changes in Sacramento again after this election, will voters be even more disillusioned with government?
Any time you promise, raise an expectation you can’t meet, you risk voter alienation. That’s what happened to Democrats. In 2008, they raised a lot of expectations, but things didn’t change. The economy was much worse, some things were done, but maybe they did the wrong things at the time, like health care. They raised expectations, but the continued bad economy frustrated those expectations.
Ten cities in California had local pension reform measures, including San Francisco, where Measure B was defeated. But the issue really strikes a chord with voters. What’s going on?
There are situations in places like Bell that fuel anger, where people feel government has sanctioned an [outrageous] public pension system. It’s seen as proof that government doesn’t know how to manage itself and make prudent fiscal decisions, that it’s giving away stuff that oughtn’t to be given away.
We heard last night from John Boehner that the Democrats are captured by special interests, especially labor. Yes, in California public employee unions, teachers, and SIEU do have a lot of influence with Democrats. Democrats support agendas that benefit the members of these unions.
But what the electorate doesn’t seem to figure into this equation is that the Republicans are beholden to a whole range of special interests, usually from the corporate world—people who are among the wealthiest of our citizens across the country.
Pension reform isn’t any different than people who are trying to do away with the capital-gains tax or reduce the corporate income tax, or do away with the estate tax. It’s just a different constituency. There are winners and losers on every political issue. Republicans are good at hiding the winners on their side.
From 2008-09, at the very depths of the recession when the economy was just getting crushed, people who made over $1 million a year had their incomes increased fivefold. It doesn’t seem to sink into people’s heads that these policies have benefited very, very few Americans—the top 1 percent or less. Everybody else is suffering, yet the transfer of wealth from the rest of us to that elite group has been a fairly steady trend over the last 30 to 35 years. Guess what? Those are policies embraced by the Republican Party. The winners in that equation tend to be special interests, but not Democratic Party special interests. It ain’t labor, it’s not the United Auto Workers, not people who work for state government. That’s the other side of pension equation that we don’t talk about very much.
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