A Triumph of Hope Over Fear

The election is over. The voters have spoken, giving a resounding “no” to the budget-related measures sent to the ballot as part of the February budget agreement. As poll results plummeted, the Governor and, to a lesser extent, legislative backers of Propositions 1A through 1F aggressively promoted fear in an unsuccessful attempt to convince voters that the ballot measures provided the only alternative to the state plunging over a fiscal cliff. The rhetoric was extreme, even by campaign standards, with the Governor suggesting that he might be forced to lay off thousands of firefighters and release thousands of inmates if the ballot measures fail. This ploy proved counterproductive and, if anything, solidified opposition.

So why do I believe that the May 19 results can be viewed as a triumph of hope over fear? I spent the better part of the last two and a half months traversing California, talking about the budget, the special election, and California’s future. From San Diego to the North Bay, I spoke before diverse audiences ranging from Orange County PTA activists to Silicon Valley community leaders, from philanthropists to East Bay nonprofit leaders and community organizers in Los Angeles. While California faces tremendous challenges — the worst economic downturn in the post-World War II era and budget crises that show little prospect of abating — I found a new level of interest, concern, and commitment to building a better future for all Californians.

While I am not going to argue that the thousands of individuals that I met are a representative sample, they do represent the best that the state has to offer. Parents who volunteer to improve the quality of their children’s schools and public education more broadly; nonprofit service providers who struggle in the face of tight budgets and rising demand to care for the state’s most vulnerable; and interested voters who got up early or stayed out late to learn the about the state’s finances, how we ended up in the mess we’re in, and how to get out. Almost universally, I met voters deeply dismayed by, but profoundly interested in fundamentally addressing, the state’s budget challenges.

In the context of the May election, this combination of dismay and concern played out as a rejection of Proposition 1A, a mind bogglingly complex measure that would have tied California’s fiscal future to the worst decade of its fiscal past. Voters correctly understood that Proposition 1A would have done nothing to change the fundamental imbalance between revenues and expenditures that creates the state’s persistent budget shortfalls and nothing to change the supermajority vote requirements that result in gridlock and budget deals that perpetuate the state’s budget problems. Voters also rejected Proposition 1C, perceiving an uncanny resemblance between wishful borrowing against future lottery proceeds and the unsound mortgages, collateralized debt swaps, and other shaky financial transactions that have brought the global economy to its knees and pushed California’s unemployment rate an all-time high.

In the midst of all this doom and gloom, I found an underlying sense of optimism. The afterglow of the November election has brought new activists to the table and rekindled a belief that change is possible. There is also a sense of realism and an understanding that tough choices lie ahead. The ambitious federal efforts to stem the economic downturn, stabilize financial markets, and rein in the excesses of private markets are beginning to help voters see government as a solution to, rather than the cause of, economic malaise.

What happens next? The magnitude of the budget challenges and difficulty of the decisions in the weeks ahead cannot be underestimated. The take-home lesson from the recent election should be that a flawed process leads to a flawed outcome. The best interests of California can only be served through an open and deliberative process that focuses on what’s best for California five, 10, or 20 years from now. Changing the two-thirds vote requirements for passing state budgets and tax increases is a necessary first step that would go far toward restoring accountability and allowing California to respond to the needs of a growing, changing population and an ever-more-competitive economy.

— Jean Ross