The Green Party believes that the state needs comprehensive reform of its tax and budgeting processes. That is what Prop 31 attempts to do, by combining a series of broad reforms to the powers of local government, the state legislature and the Governor.
However the Green Party opposes Prop 31 based upon its content, seeing it as unconditionally accepting of an austerity approach to governing, rather than suggesting alternatives to it.
Under Prop 31, the Governor would be granted power to declare a fiscal emergency, and then unilaterally cut the budget and eliminate programs, if the legislature fails to act within 45 days. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sought such powers in 2005 through Proposition 76, which California voters rejected in a landslide. The Green Party rejects such concentration of power in place of a system checks and balances, and it sees it as the wrong answer to the right question. If we are questioning what tools do we need to address fiscal emergencies, why not eliminate the 2/3 requirement to raise taxes by the legislature instead? Or if that is too ambitious, why not give the Governor the power to unilaterally raise taxes on taxpayers whose income is in the top 1% in California, rather than cutting programs that benefit millions of Californians?
A major underlying cause of the state's ongoing structural deficit has been new funding mandates in voter-approved ballot initiatives that don't identify a funding source. A logical response is requiring that such ballot initiatives must identify funding sources for any new mandated spending. Instead of addressing this, Prop 31 would establish 'pay-as-you-go' budgeting that would only cover new or expanded programs, and tax reductions proposed by the governor or passed by the legislature. This would make it harder for the legislature to increase spending, unless they cut something else at the same time, or raise revenue.
Prop 31's authors argue this would prevent the legislature from committing to long-term spending without a funding source. But since raising revenues requires a two-thirds vote and so is almost impossible, this de facto institutionalizes in the constitution a systemic bias to at best freeze service levels, rather than expand revenues, as the state attempts to meet its basic needs. Passing laws that cost money, without knowing where the money will come from, from is a bad idea. But requiring that new or expanded programs must identify their funding source, without changing the 2/3 requirement for new taxes, is just a recipe for gridlock and cuts to needed services.
But even if the 2/3 requirement to raise revenues were eliminated, Prop 31's questionable wording seems to prevent increases in funding for schools, for example, even if there was a budget surplus, unless taxes were raised or other programs cut. At the same time, even if there was a budget surplus, Prop 31 prohibits tax cuts unless other taxes are raised or programs cut. Is this really their recipe for effective government? A former board member of the California Forward Action fund resigned over Prop 31's drafting, saying it “contains serious flaws . . . and will further harm California.” In his letter of resignation he said that he was “disappointed that California Forward submitted signatures to the Secretary of State without correcting the flaws in the initiative.”
Perhaps Prop 31's most sweeping change would be the creation of Community Strategic Action Plans. Prop 31 takes about $200 million a year in state sales tax funds (more ballot box budgeting) and shifts it to a new Performance and Accountability Trust Fund for counties, cities and schools that develop such plans to provide services. As part of that process, any county and partner local governments could identify state laws or regulations regarding programs "financed in whole or in part with state funds" that "impede progress toward the goals" of their plan and create their own local rules instead, unless vetoed by both houses of the legislature within 60 days.
This reactionary feature of Prop 31 creates the potential for hundreds of cities and each of California's 58 counties to essentially establish 'miniature state governments' and their own rules - without a vote of the people - when it comes to things like human services, worker safety, heath care and the environment. Counties and their city and school partners, for example, could set their own eligibility requirements and penalties for various health and human service programs – say, Medi-Cal or programs for foster kids. Do we really want a patchwork of county-by-county rules standards when it comes to provision of basic services? This same provision could enable local governments to evade the California Environmental Quality Act. Do we really want to undercut environmental protection in this manner?
As a party with deep roots in the bioregional movement and a commitment to decentralization of power, the Green Party agrees that there is great potential for increased decision-making at all levels below the state level, including more interagency coordination, but not by sacrificing basic standards for services and, environmental protections. Existing and future state standards should serve as a floor beneath which local governments cannot go, but not as a ceiling preventing more ambitious efforts.
A commendable element of Prop 31 is the requirement for the legislature to publish the contents of bills at least three days before a vote, except for certain bills relating to natural disasters or other emergencies. However, should this be in our already unwieldy state constitution (the third largest in the world, including national governments)? Or should it be in the state Government code, where the current requirement (from the Ralph M. Brown Act) is found that local legislative bodies such as boards of supervisors, city councils and school boards must publish their full agendas at least 72 hours before a meeting?
Prop 31 would also change the state budget process from a one-year to a two-year process. As one of the Green Party's key values is Future Focus, we can see the value in long-term planning. But without the more pressing reforms the state needs first, including eliminating the 2/3 requirement to raise revenues, a two-year process only locks in the system's current structural deficits for a longer period at a time. There would still be incentives to use short-term budget-balancing gimmicks, because long-term structural solutions would still not be available.
Discussion of comprehensive change to address the state's structural budget deficit needs to happen in an open, inclusive and public manner involving all the stakeholders that would be affected by such change. Many Greens were involved with the Constitutional Convention movement in 2009-2010, which promised such an approach. Prop 31's author, the well-funded California Forward, was in a position at the time to play a major supportive role and its silence was deafening. Instead it went its own way and drafted its own private measure, which for the reasons above, suffers greatly from the lack of involvement of more stakeholders, who could've identified the drafting errors and the negative consequences for many Californians.
For all these reasons, the Green Party opposes Prop 31 and recommends a 'no' vote.
More on Proposition 31 from the California Official Voter Information Guide: