Nicolas Berggruen: His namesake institute has given $1.5 million to back Proposition 31.
Nicolas Berggruen: His namesake institute has given $1.5 million to back Proposition 31.

Proposition 31 Two-Year State Budget: Too Confusing to Be Convincing?

In a different sort of America -- a quieter, more thoughtful America -- California Proposition 31 might be a lock. The "California Government Performance and Accountability" proposition would require that bills be posted three days before passage. It would mandate two-year budget plans instead of just one. It would block the Legislature from spending money it doesn't have. It would allocate some sales tax revenues to local governments instead of the behemoth state government.

Appealingly, it's the brainchild of the good government group California Forward, and its major backer is the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, the two-year-old namesake project of a German/American billionaire philanthropist who seems genuinely interested in helping California get its shit together. (The Institute's California project is called the Think Long Initiative -- and who can argue with that?) It's also worth noting that this proposition has drawn none of the storm and fury that's faced other well-meaning propositions (see: propositions 30 and 38). The Berggruen Institute and its allies have kicked in $4.4 million to support it, according to the non-partisan Voter's Edge project; the unions that oppose it have spent just $573,000.

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So what's the problem? Mainly, Proposition 31 is a complicated set of changes that have yet to be reduced to a convincing soundbyte. And soundbytes (and memes) seem to be the way America makes up its minds on all but the most highly publicized issues.

It's hard to blame the marketing team. KQED has outlined nine separate big changes within Proposition 31. That's a lot to digest. A Field poll on the measure found that 39 percent of voters were undecided even after being read its official ballot description.

Making matters worse, Proposition 31 is not without its high-minded dissenters. The L.A. Times calls it "too broad, too shallow and, importantly, for a measure that adds new language to the state Constitution, too inflexible."

So what's the average busy American to do? Spend a few hours untangling the thing and reasoning out whether they agree with the good-government wonks or the wonks at the editorial page of the state's largest daily? Unlikely.

Instead, voters are likely to err on the side of caution: Yes, state government is broken, but it's easier to stick with the status quo than take a side in the very complicated debate on how to fix it. The Field poll on Proposition 31 found that 40 percent of voters planned to vote no and just 21 percent would vote yes.


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