Wednesday, November 3, 2010

State Parks Sacrificed for Suburban Car Fetish

So last night was a pretty awful night for anyone who's part of the muddled American "left." We did keep the Senate, but lost big in the House. For a great analysis on the subject, I defer to The Transport Politic. To avoid repeating what hundreds of others throughout our blogosphere have written on the subject, I'll confine my reporting to local (and under-reported state) issues.

The first result from last night's election that has drawn my outrage is the failure of Proposition 21. (42% Y, 58% N w/ 96.6% reporting) California's system of gorgeous and fragile state parks protects our state's natural beauty, biodiversity, and anthropological and cultural history- and despite these benefits, it is under attack. The inadvisable budget austerity that our broken state government has forced upon us is depriving the citizens of our state of these much-needed natural and historical treasures by closing, reducing the hours of, or simply not maintaining our parks. Prop 21 would have given the parks a stable, ample revenue source and would have freed up current parks money for other worthwhile purposes while giving Californians unfettered access to the riches their state possesses. At $18/year, a Californian could make up the fee by visiting state parks just twice. Remembering that many popular beaches are state parks, a couple of trips to the beach a year would have been an easy endeavour for most southern Californians.

So why did such a beneficial initiative get shot down? Well, the story I heard from local progressives (and I think it's plausible) is that many opposed the initiative because they have multiple cars. The $18/year fee is $18/year/car- and many suburban families have 3, 4, 5 or more cars. You know, one for each driver in a household with two teenagers/young adults, plus maybe that classic car they kept around from their younger days- or perhaps it's a lower-income multi-generational household with several families pooling resources, each with their two cars... suddenly $18 is more like $90+, and it's just not worth it in these hard economic times. (My parents, rural empty-nesters who enjoy motorized toys, would have paid $72/year- two cars, motorcycle and RV. Of course, they use state parks so often it would have been a significant savings... but they illustrate my point.)

Now, I think even $90/year is worth it to save our state parks, but that's immaterial to my point. The point is that our automobile-dominated transportation system is placing significant hardship on people, and the fact that they see a personal fleet of cars as necessary led directly to the defeat of Prop 21. If we had enough transportation alternatives in place such that a suburban family of four could get by on just one car, perhaps the initiative would have passed and California's natural and historical resources would have been kept open for all to see.

Also troubling at the state level is the passage of Proposition 26. (52.7% Y, 47.3% N, 96.6% reporting) Prop 26 will make it nearly impossible to fix the state budget via revenue by making most "fee" increases and all tax changes- even revenue-neutral ones- subject to a 2/3rds vote or local election. A 2/3 vote is essentially impossible- there are always Republicans taking up just over 1/3 of the state legislature, and they have unquestionable party discipline against anything that even smells like a tax increase. It will particularly hamper the implementation of AB 32- though I think a clever implementation of cap-and-trade with the already planned giveaway of emissions permits would be possible, it will be impossible to bring in revenue through such enforcement, leaving all of the gains from creating a carbon market in the private sector.

Prop 26 will further contribute to the ungovernability of the state of California, hampering our ability to pass a budget that is anything more than a series of drastic, ugly cuts. The failure of Proposition 24 (41.6% Y 58.4% N, 96.6% reporting) as well- a measure that would have eliminated a corporate tax loophole benefiting only the largest corporations in the sate- means that governor-elect Jerry Brown will have a tough time fixing the mess this state is in.

Taken together, these votes demonstrate just why the initiative system is terribly broken- only the largest corporations and wealthy interests can afford to pay the several millions of dollars needed to get a measure on the ballot. Once there, complex measures (like Props 24 and 26- even I don't understand all the specifics) are submitted to uninformed voters who then tie the hands of their elected officials in actually getting things done. When the electeds fail to govern the state, more wealthy interests use the gridlock to convince voters that further initiatives are needed, enhancing their interests and destroying our public sector. The cycle will repeat until we reform the initiative process, either through (ironically) an initiative or a constitutional convention.

On another note, we did have some local successes. Measure K, the RCTC's proposal to borrow against Measure A funds for highway, street and Metrolink improvements, passed (62.39% Y 37.61% N, 91.82% reporting). This is sort of a Faustian bargain for alternative transportation advocates- it would increase the rate of highway and local street expansion, but would also ensure the completion of the Metrolink Perris Valley Line, expanding Metrolink service to new areas for the first time since the 1995 opening of the IE-OC Line. (The 91 Line opened in 2002, but served only existing stations- and the Buena Park station opened in 2007, but served only existing lines.) With any luck, the Metrolink expansion will serve to catalyze further transit ridership and service in the Moreno Valley and Perris areas beyond the stations themselves. The Perris and Alessandro stations in particular have the potential to become serious regional transit centres- the former is already a hub for local bus lines.

Measure V, a City of Riverside measure to increase the local hotel tax, passed. (65.88% Y 34.12% N, 82.58% reporting) This measure should provide funding for city parks, public services, and the new Riverside Convention Centre- which promises to be a more integrated and pedestrian-friendly place than the current monstrosity. Of course, I'm sure much of this revenue is going to be used for more parking lots...

And lastly, on a non-transpo note, Corona School Board member Bill Hedrick lost against corrupt real-estate developer and incumbent Congressman Ken Calvert. This race was always going to be an uphill battle, but there was a minute there where it looked possible. To my fellow members of Hedrick's all-volunteer army, keep the faith- we'll get it next time.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason Prop 21 went down is because people are finally tired of ballot box budgeting. I for one voted no - not because I think $18 is outrageous to pay for our parks system, but more because the continual addition of referendums mandating revenues to go to a certain cause, greatly limits the flexibility of the Legislature and is (I think) the greatest reason CA is continually in a budget crisis.

JN said...

And I would agree with you, Anon, had Prop 26 not also passed with a substantial margin. 26 is ballot-box budgeting the likes of which we haven't seen since Prop 13.

Chewie said...

Prop 26 is going to be a disaster for public services. Anybody who has been watching state politics knows that the ability to raise fees with a majority vote was one of the few things taking the edge off of Prop 13's supermajority tax raising requirement.

We need supermajority votes for amending the State Constitution, not for basic budgeting decisions like raising revenue. The dilemma is, if you change the constitution to make it harder to amend, you probably lock in all the crap that we've passed through the initiative constitutional amendment process permanently.

Chewie said...

I would argue that in a state with 12%+ unemployment, it's very problematic to raise fees on cars to pay for parks.

It's a worthy cause, but the details (and economic context) of how things are paid for matter. A lot of people probably wish they could take a trip to go see the parks right now, but they're probably so concerned about whether or not they'll have a job, whether or not they can pay the rent/mortgage, whether or not they can get health insurance and put food on the table, that they'll be reluctant to add fees to their transportation to pay for them.

Parks are nice to have, but in a situation where so many people lack basic necessities I'd say a regressive fee to pay for them might not be as progressive as you suggest.

For the record, I think that we have to make driving more expensive for environmental/survival reasons, but in the context of offering real urban design and transportation alternatives and financial support to the people most impacted by the decision.

Anonymous said...

Prop 13 has significantly reduced the ability to raise revenues...however, the State has been very clever in other ways. California is one of the highest taxed for personal income.

Overall, I think the biggest problem California has is the overall lack of knowledge of the electorate and the probability the masses vote for whoever has the most and "prettiest" ad campaign.

JN said...

Anon- Prop 13 also requires a supermajority requirement for personal income taxes- and, indeed, any tax that isn't revenue-neutral. Prop 26 cut it down to "any tax." And, as I mentioned above, "2/3 majority" means "impossible"- the CA Republican Party is among the most right-wing in the country, and every single member of caucus has signed the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Pledge promising to never, ever, ever raise taxes. It's not as if we can just decide to raise income or sales taxes a bit more. Prop 26 takes away many of the "creative" solutions that lawmakers have found over the years.

And you're absolutely right. The vast majority of voters lack the knowledge necessary to decide on the complex budgeting problems put before them. But then again, earlier measures (like Prop 13) have made it so that the people who know what they're doing- the legislature- can't make the decisions they need to. The initiative process needs serious reform.

Anonymous said...

The park prop was badly advertised.

For one, people could have SAVED money if it had passed. Instead of paying up every time they visit a park, you only pay once a year. Second, the effect of tourism dollars to the state was not explained. They still have to pay park entrance and they get a nicer park.

Maybe they can try again next time with a $15 fee and explain that it removes the entrance fee for california cars.