If indeed Proposition 29 goes down to defeat -- at the time of this writing the Secretary of State's office was still counting absentee ballots -- it may prove to be a good thing for the state in the long term.
I say this because Proposition 29, which would add a $1 tax to a pack of cigarettes and other tobacco products for cancer research, is an issue that I could philosophically support.
But my inability to back Proposition 29 was based on a larger issue that has plagued the state for some time. Given the state's tenuous financial state, I'm not certain that new taxes for cancer research, albeit a worthy cause, is the best use of resources.
Assuming Proposition 29 loses, would it mean that Californians have finally grown weary of what I call the "Dire Straits Syndrome"?
In 1985, the British rock band Dire Straits hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 with the song "Money for Nothing." It can be argued quite persuasively that California is in dire straits financially, in part, because of our desire to vote for money-for-nothing initiatives at the ballot box.
Given that less than 12 percent of the California population smokes, it would be easy to pass this "painless" tax increase, relatively speaking -- hence, money for nothing.
Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the Legislature has been saddled with a super majority requirement to raise revenues. But the people, through the initiative process, could
Over the past several decades, the bond has been a preferred tool for the "Dire Straits Syndrome." Bonds don't require a super majority to pass, and it is a relatively painless way to systematically raid the general fund without anyone really noticing.
The Legislature also joined in on the fun. Given the daunting nature of the super majority, coupled with the need to improve the state's infrastructure, placing bonds on the ballot became the path of least resistance for lawmakers to ask voters to approve the seemingly painless borrowing.
As Joe Mathews and Mark Paul wrote in the book "California Crackup":
"California turned the logic of requiring voter approval of debt on its head. The idea behind the requirement is that taking on public debt is the most serious decision a state makes. By issuing bonds, the state gives the holder of the debt a claim on the state's revenues that takes priority over public safety and public health."
The question going forward: What has the electorate learned? Rejecting this money-for-nothing proposition does not mean the electorate is ready to address what's ailing the state.
In November, Gov. Jerry Brown will put before voters a proposal to increase the sales tax and raise taxes on upper incomes for schools, and to balance the state's budget.
In May, a Los Angeles Times poll revealed 64 percent approved of the governor's measure. Last week, however, a Field Poll indicated support had declined to 52 percent.
Tough choices appear to be the only way to pull California out of its financial quagmire. It requires more than a one-time rosy projection, deregulation or cutting waste, fraud and abuse from the general fund to put an end to the institutionalized deficits that have been created.
We can no longer borrow and benevolently leave the bill for future generations, offsetting the high threshold for raising taxes by the immoral practice of borrowing.
What will we do now that the day of reckoning is near?
There's got to be some abuse we haven't found, a tax that only applies to somebody else, or another bond we can float.
Maybe Dire Straits is up for a reunion tour.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or email@example.com.
See a photo slideshow at www.insidebayarea.com/byron-williams