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Newt Gingrich and the Opposite of the Truth

May 22, 2009

At the Washington Post, Newt Gingrich argues that California’s current budget mess–and the voters’ refusal to authorize corrective measures–are a sure sign that the people of the state are taking back control of state finances that have been ruined by overzealous liberal machine politicians:

Voters in our largest state spoke unambiguously, but politicians and lobbyists in Sacramento are ignoring or rejecting the voters’ will, just as they are in Albany and Trenton. The states with huge government machines have basically moved beyond the control of the people. They have become castles of corruption, favoritism and wastefulness. These state governments are run by lobbyists for the various unions through bureaucracies seeking to impose the values of a militant left. Elections have become so rigged by big money and clever incumbents that the process of self-government is threatened.

The problem with this analysis: it isn’t true. Not even remotely. Set aside the fact that the current Governor is a Republican and that the conservative voters of that state have shown their ability to exercise their preferences in statewide ballot initiatives like Proposition 8, Newt completely ignores the very particular set of direct democracy measures that exist in California and almost nowhere else. They have led to an ungainly proliferation of ballot initiatives and propositions that almost assured the state’s budgetary demise. He also conveniently omits discussion about how a conservative minority in the state house can defeat any budget proposal it dislikes. In California, more than in most states, politicians are forced to defer to the decisions of the voting population. That’s hardly a dictatorship by government.

Newt’s arguments are countered, more comprehensively than I’ve done here, by a recent article in “The Economist”, hardly an apologist for liberal policies. Read the detailed discussion of California’s voter-created troubles here. An excerpt:

The minority of eligible Californians who vote not only send extremists to Sacramento, but also circumscribe what those representatives can do by deciding many policies directly. It is the voters who decide, for instance, to limit legislators’ terms in office, to mandate prison terms for criminals, to withdraw benefits from undocumented immigrants, to spend money on trains or sewers, or to let Indian tribes run casinos.

Through such “ballot-box budgeting”, a large share of the state’s revenues is spoken for before budget negotiations even begin. “The voters get mad when they vote to spend a ton of money and the legislature can’t then find the money,” says Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, a research outfit in Sacramento. Indeed, voters being mad is the one constant; the only proposition that appears certain to pass on May 19th would punish legislators with pay freezes in budget-deficit years.

Direct democracy, or the idea that the will of the people should be ascertained on every major issue facing a state or federal government, strikes most of us as a fair and reasonable demand to place on the government; to require that our elected officials defer to our judgment in making decisions that affect our lives seems like the heart of responsive governance. And while this country is and has been a place where the will of the people trumps the will of the government, there are practical limitations on the ability of the people to govern.

[In California, when a ballot proposal is initiated there are] a barrage of television commercials, junk mail and robo-calls that leave no Californian home unmolested and the great majority confused. Propositions tend to be badly worded, with double negatives that leave some voters thinking they voted for something when they really voted against. One eloquent English teacher in Los Angeles recently called a radio show complaining that, after extensive study, she could not understand the ballot measures on grounds of syntax.

The broken budget mechanism and the twin failures in California’s representative and direct democracy are enough to guarantee dysfunction. The sheer complexity of the state exacerbates it. Peter Schrag, the author of “California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment”, has counted about 7,000 overlapping jurisdictions, from counties and cities to school and water districts, fire and park commissions, utility and mosquito-abatement boards, many with their own elected officials. The surprise is that anything works at all.

As a result, there is now a consensus among the political elite that California’s governance is “fundamentally broken” and that the state is “ungovernable, unless we make tough choices”, as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and a likely candidate for governor next year, puts it.

It isn’t liberal politicians who have caused California’s budget trouble. It is a combination of California’s unwieldy governing mechanisms and a world-wide economic downturn. And that isn’t a recipe for Republican success that can be duplicated elsewhere, as Newt argues.

Governing is a complicated process. And governing California is more complicated than in most places. That complication doesn’t fit within Newt Gingrich’s pinched and myopically partisan view of the world, however. So he ignores what does not conform to his staunchly held beliefs and argues vehemently for the opposite of the truth.

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