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What Prop 1F Could Mean for California Politics

by Mytheos Holt, published

A glimmer of light has suddenly entered the oppressive darkness of California's special elections prospects, though it is a feeble one indeed. Against all expectations by politicians both Left and Right (to say nothing of commentators), one of the ballot measures is beginning to gather speed. Ordinarily, such a thing is hardly cause for celebration (bills are written with the express intention of being appealing, after all), but in this case, the choice of propositions reveals an interesting moral trend in California voters, a trend which is either common sensical or profoundly dangerous.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel reports that the infamous moderate Abel Maldonado is "winning the hearts of the public with his ballot measure, Proposition 1F."

Wait a minute. You mean the legislative pay freezing Proposition 1F? Where do you think we are, a democracy?

Admittedly, as ballot measures go, 1F is the least difficult one to stomach, as it does not hit most of California's people and, at least from the voters' perspective, only targets those responsible for not being capable leaders.

Apparently furious with tergiversating legislators and sick of being lied to about the future, California's people would doubtlessly see themselves as victims, and Proposition 1F is one way for them to get justice against the cynical politicians in Sacramento.

After all, most people think legislators should feel the pain just the way everyone else does. It is probably this sort of "make the bums pay" sentiment which motivates the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News to opine: "While the savings under this proposition would not be significant, we agree with Maldonado that legislators need to share in the pain when the state's fiscal house is not in order."

In other words, forget about the the numbers, this is about morality. Moral considerations are hardly irrelevant in this case. Indeed, assuming that the politicians involved would actually feel the pain, then the support for 1F might be a valuable asset if only as a reminder to legislators that playing endlessly with other peoples' money has repercussions (a lesson which the Democratically controlled legislature could use). However, it is not clear that this will actually occur, for the simple reason that California's legislators are in a perfect position to become well-greased crypto-lobbyists.

Consider the following: California's legislature is probably one of the most partisan in the nation. The Mercury News called it "overly partisan" and while such an assessment begs the question of whether there is an optimal level of partisanship, there is little doubt that the "blame the other guy" style of politics is rampant in California. At the point where the bickering between parties on the legislative floor frequently sounds like a debate between Barbra Streisand and Rush Limbaugh, one can safely claim that the legislature is hyper-partisan.

The question is whether this has implications for 1F, and quite arguably, it does. Removing legislative pay might feel good morally, but it actually creates incentives for an increase in corruption. Their rhetoric aside, legislators are not children, and will not take a slap on the wrist because they know they deserve it. They will look for outside contributions to offset the money they lose.

In any other state, this would not be a problem, but California hosts some of the most well-heeled lobbying organizations in the country. Among Democrats, contributions from labor unions and Hollywood are only too thick on the ground, and even Republicans have the perpetual appeal to anti-tax activism and the NRA to sustain them. Assuming these groups still want to have undercover lobbyists in the legislature (which some of them already have enjoyed historically), the limitation of legislative pay will not make the legislature less partisan. It will make it more partisan as public money is replaced by lobbyist dollars.

This contingency relies on a number of pessimistic assumptions being true, but it should give the potentially pro-1F voter pause. After all, nobody wants the legislature to turn into an episode of Crossfire. Oh wait...

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