Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Complicating the Ballot

Every election in California produces the longest, most complicated ballot imaginable. It's not that we have an unusually high number of elected offices to fill. It's that we inevitably have an untowardly number of ballot propositions. The state-issued election guide frequently reaches Yellow Pages proportions. Who has time to read all of that stuff?

I decided a while back that as a matter of course I would vote no on each and every proposition. After all, legislating is what I pay my legislators to do. The problem is that they are simply not doing their job, although it's not always their fault. For example, a bill which raises taxes requires a "super-majority" for passage, which even in a legislature controlled by one party is almost impossible to assemble. In any event, I am reconsidering my position on propositions this time around. The reason? Rob Reiner (yes, another California actor with political aspirations) is pushing a proposition for pre-school classes for 4-year-olds.

E.J. Dionne had a pretty perceptive column on the issue which I found in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Reiner hopes to persuade his fellow citizens, first in California and then in the nation, that they can get a return on their tax dollars.

His current crusade is Proposition 82, an initiative on California's June ballot that would provide an estimated $2.4 billion a year to guarantee preschool for every 4-year-old in California. The initiative would pay for this by increasing the state's top tax rate, currently 9.3 percent, to 11 percent for couples earning over $800,000 a year and individuals earning over $400,000.

Conservatives leaders dislike his initiative, Reiner said, because "they have cemented the notion that raising taxes for any purpose is tantamount to murdering someone." Taxpayers are indeed reluctant to support general tax increases, he said, but "the American public has no problem raising taxes if it's for something good." He thinks that California, which started the tax revolt in the late 1970s, could inaugurate a new era of public investment in things that matter.

And preschool matters. Hardheaded economists have argued that of all the investments government can make to improve educational outcomes and future opportunities, preschool may be the most efficient. James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Pedro Carneiro have noted that when early chances to form human abilities are missed, "remediation is costly, and full remediation is often prohibitively costly."

And if Reiner can provoke a new debate on taxing, spending and the value of preschool, he will earn himself a political Oscar.
[Emphasis added]

Education specialists pretty much agree that preschool attendance by 4-year-olds can make a dramatic difference in education success overall. The children learn socialization skills and the basic building blocks which will enable them to learn reading and ciphering more easily and enjoyably. Preschool for 4-year-olds may also simplify child-care issues for single parent families and for families in which both parents must work to sustain the family unit.

So what's the problem? It's expensive, as public education always is. Reiner's proposal is not all that outlandish in that, relatively speaking, the people who would be paying for it can afford the tax hike, especially since those in the designated bracket have been getting a whole lot of tax breaks at the federal level for the past several years and will get an even larger break in terms of a federal deduction for state taxes paid.

The California legislature has been asked by Reiner and others to address this issue, but the response has been silence. It's that old "we can't raise taxes right now" response. This just might be one time that I vote yes on a proposition. I hope other Californians will as well.


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