The Legislature Needs a Spending Limit Nanny

Here’s a riddle. What is 150 years old but has less self control than a toddler?

That’s right it’s the California Legislature whose profligate spending has put our state almost $20 billion in the red. Over and over again it has proven Ronald Reagan’s maxim that "government is like an infant — an insatiable appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other."

Fiscal incontinence is nothing new to Sacramento. Back in 1979 Proposition 13 co-author Paul Gann put a reasonable limit on the ballot that tied new spending to inflation and population growth. Voters agreed and the system worked so well that in 1987 Governor George Deukmejian actually returned money to the taxpayers.

Tellingly Senate Pro-tem David Roberti objected saying "When you’ve got it you spend it." Problem is lawmakers have shown a willingness to spend it even when they don’t "got it."

Those who look at spending other people’s money as the most delicious of all privileges and those who directly profit from state spending combined in 1990 to make the Gann limit go away. The transportation lobby placed Proposition 111 on the ballot a gas tax increase and funded a campaign that promised to virtually solve state transportation problems in perpetuity. Voters were so pleased to learn freeways would be clear of traffic that they overlooked what was buried in the initiative: A reconfiguration of the Gann limit that made it irrelevant.

In the beginning of this decade Gray Davis showed how much mischief can be wrought when an irresponsible governor colludes with our spend-happy representatives and there are no constraints. During Davis’ tenure he managed to take a surplus that he inherited from the previous administration and turn it into a double digit billion dollar deficit that we continue to pay for today.

Unlike Senators and Assembly Representatives whose sheer numbers give them some anonymity Davis had no place to hide and his poor fiscal performance was a major factor in his losing his job to a recall.

Lesson learned? Hardly.

Three years ago I got together with then-Senator now Congressman John Campbell to develop a long-term solution to the problem of runaway state spending. Together we crafted a ballot measure "The Deficit Prevention Act" that would have reestablished spending limits with teeth.

At this time Governor Schwarzenegger was still showing what seemed to be a sincere willingness to stand up to spending interests and we urged him to adopt our plan. Perhaps due to the advice of his handlers he rejected it in favor of a much milder proposal that would have allowed significant growth in government which he made part of a package of four "reform" measures. His reform package was soundly defeated by a confused public trying to sort out four unrelated measures during a special election.

So the state and taxpayers are back to square one facing a huge deficit that can only be addressed through reduced spending or massive tax increases or both.

Now Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill have stepped forward with a constructive proposal that would prevent recurrence of our annual budget dilemma. Although even they admit the plan is not new its elements could not be more timely.

Villines and Cogdill would restore spending limits based on population growth and inflation. They would also mandate the creation of a significant rainy day fund to protect programs when the economy and state revenues go into decline and use surpluses to retire state debt whose repayment currently drains billions annually from the general fund.

Reasonable adults should recognize that establishing strict spending limits combined with a prudent reserve is the best way to protect all Californians both taxpayers and those who depend on state services. But because this assumes reasonable adult behavior this plan’s chances of actually being adopted by the current Legislature are — well about the same as the snowball’s.

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.