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The martial art of subduing special interests

December 22, 2012|By Assemblyman Mike Gatto

Passing a major reform in Sacramento has the same odds as a novice knocking out the champ at a martial-arts competition. This is particularly true when it comes to reforming ballot-box budgeting. I’ve introduced eight measures on this topic over the past 2 1/2 years, and people often ask me why I bother. Changes to the status quo are long shots that require heavy lifting. Complex constitutional amendments are not easily explained in sound bites. And many of these bills don’t exactly ingratiate a legislator with special interests. I always respond that I am lucky enough to have been made to see the big picture, and that the big picture imparts in me a sense of martial duty.

When I first ran for state Assembly, I sought the endorsement of former Speaker Robert Hertzberg, whose encyclopedic knowledge of our government and involvement in various reform groups made him a prime candidate to teach this karate kid a thing or two. In true Mr. Miyagi fashion, he wanted some wax-on, wax-off. “You can’t have my endorsement until I know you’re prepared for the monumental task before you. And you cannot be prepared until you’ve studied the roots of California’s problems.”

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Undaunted, I humbly left his office and began my quest. I read everything I could, whether he’d suggested it or not: California histories, Legislative Analyst Office reports, think-tank studies and more. After months of study, I was ready to spar. At our next meeting, I was able to thoroughly discuss the big picture with Hertzberg. The good news? I received his endorsement and won my race. The bad news? I’ve remained acutely aware of the need for reform, and troubled by the general inaction to achieve it.

Buried in the documents I studied were disturbing facts about the scope and harmful effects of ballot-box budgeting. Unfunded program spending from ballot initiatives costs California at least $8.6 billion each year, and special funds created by ballot initiatives soak up an additional $2 billion taxpayer dollars each year. This is nuts.

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