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California Voters Go to Polls on Budget Propositions

May 19, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In California, voters are weighing in Tuesday on ballot measures related to the state's budget difficulties. Spencer Michels reports.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, California’s huge budget troubles. There is a statewide vote today on a proposal to help solve it.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.

SPENCER MICHELS: California’s economy is in dire straits. Unemployment is high, as are foreclosures and business failures. And the state budget is $21 billion out of whack, with teacher layoffs, health and welfare cuts, and prisoner releases in the offing.

Six initiatives on the ballot are being touted as a partial solution. They could reduce the gap by $6 billion, says Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, R-Calif.: People need to know how this election will affect you and how this will affect your child’s school, your roads, the safety of your neighborhoods, and the future of your state.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite their worries over the economy, many Californians are essentially ignoring this election. Their apathy is palpable, as much of the electorate seems to have lost faith and interest in state government and in the governor.

CALIFORNIAN MAN: It’s just irritating that we’re even having to vote for anything like this.

CALIFORNIAN MAN: I haven’t heard anything about the election and what’s going on with it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some of those who did make it to the polls voted their own interests.

CALIFORNIAN WOMAN: Well, I’m voting because there is a ballot measure that would take away funding for early childhood education. And early childhood education is very important to me personally.

Wide variety of initiatives

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor admits the ballot measures are an attempt to lessen the pain while still leaving a huge budget hole.

One initiative would cap state spending. Another pleasure would extend some temporary taxes. One would take future lottery money currently pledged to education and give it to the state. And others would transfer money earmarked for early childhood education and mental health to the general fund, to the dismay of advocates for those programs.

With the crisis worse than ever, the governor campaigned for the measures throughout the state while explaining the reasons for the mess.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: This state consistently spends all the money when we are having the good years and then, when we have the bad years and the economy goes down, we have no money left and then we have to make the program cuts and we have to go and raise taxes.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the week before the election, he threatened to sell off state-owned landmarks, including the Cow Palace near San Francisco, site of the 1964 GOP convention, and San Quentin prison on the shores of San Francisco Bay since 1852, all to raise money.

He is proclaiming he will release nearly 40,000 inmates from state prisons, including illegal immigrants. He intends to fire 5,000 state workers, reduce the school year up to seven-and-a-half days, lay off teachers, and cut support for colleges.

University of California at Berkeley public policy Professor John Ellwood says even more is on the line.

JOHN ELLWOOD, University of California, Berkeley: There's no way that you make those cuts without essentially cutting services. And who gets most services from the state? Poor people. Who's going to suffer the most? Poor people, right? Education plus poor people.

A lot of people are going to get hit. So, you know, being colloquial in a sense, there's going to be a lot of blood on the floor. People are going to suffer.

More deficits, cuts likely

SPENCER MICHELS: Voters had been here before and approved a slew of measures that politicians, including the governor, had promised would solve earlier budget messes. In fact, movie star Schwarzenegger based his first run for governor in 2003 on sweeping clean a bloated state government.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: We are here, ladies and gentlemen, to clean house.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite his star status, the Republican governor wasn't prepared for members of his own party to vote against his budget. In California, a two-thirds vote is needed to pass the budget and impose taxes, and so the legislature prevented its enactment, paralyzing the state government for weeks.

JOHN ELLWOOD: What happens in California is, someone comes in making all sorts of big promises. You have a minority party, a small, little minority party, but because of the two-thirds rule, it can block things. And nothing happens. Everybody is just unhappy.

SPENCER MICHELS: Polls indicate five of the initiatives are trailing badly. The only one with a chance prohibits pay raises for legislators when the budget isn't balanced.

But even if the measures pass, predictions are that California will run more deficits and cut more services, unless the economy improves dramatically.