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By Frank Gruber

I don't ever sneer at the electoral choices we get in our strange California amalgam of two-party politics and no-party politics. I don't lose sleep over choosing the lesser of two evils. I love voting too much ever "to hold my nose" as I enter the voting booth.

Balancing democracy with stability is a hard act, and, looking around the world, we in the U.S. have done a good job, comparatively, with our often illogical, but usually practical political system.

My views may not often be the same as those of anyone who is running, but it is rare that there are not enough differences between the candidates to justify a choice. In fact, it always amuses me to hear people on the extreme left or right bemoaning their lack of "clear choices," when in a pure democracy they would lose every vote.

But with this election coming up on March 2, I am ready to scream.

It's not the Democratic Primary. The primary is great. I am a Democrat and not only do I like the field enough to say that I will be voting for the "more of more than two goods," but also I am happy to give my vote to John Kerry in the hopes that the momentum he receives from big votes in California and New York will carry him into the White House.

No, it's the propositions, stupid, and, yes, we should all feel stupid.

Specifically, Props. 57 and 58.

I feel cornered. Blackmailed. Extorted.

The boom ended, the economy tanked. Tax revenues declined. And even though spending had not increased that much or was at particularly high historic levels, California developed a huge budget deficit, not coincidentally because during the boom, taxes were lowered -- the car tax, and marginal tax rates for the highest incomes.

Of course the car tax reduction had a trigger, under a law devised by a Republican governor, designed to increase the tax if there were a deficit. When the economy pulled the trigger, the revolt over this tax "increase" led to the election of a new Republican governor who promises something for nothing to everyone.

So we get Prop. 57, a huge bond to balance our budget, when it would make much more sense to use a surtax to raise taxes temporarily to get the pain over with now, and preserve funding for schools and other services that Californians rely on.

Then, to make Prop. 57 more palatable to our something-for-nothing electorate, we get Prop. 58 attached to it. Prop. 58, the "balanced budget amendment," is another one of those measures designed to punish state government by taking away the power to govern, even though our state problems arise from the inability of state government to govern.

So vote no? I am a big fan of State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who is leading the campaign against Props. 57 and 58, and hope he is our next governor, because his plan to raise taxes to deal with the deficit is the right idea, but no, defeating the two propositions won't work either.

The problem is that Mr. Angelides doesn't have his plan on the ballot. We don't know what will happen if 57 fails, and it's not likely, given the political climate, that between the defeat of the two propositions and June 30, when the state would run out of cash, that a tax plan could be enacted in time.

The risks are just too great of a fiscal meltdown, and for that reason on March 2 I'll be voting yes on 57 and 58, and yes, I'll be holding my nose.

In this I'll be following the advice of most of the Democratic leadership, who, with the exception of Mr. Angelides, are staying on Gov. Schwarzenegger's good side and supporting the bonds.

I like to think that the Democrats are playing footsie with the governor in the hope that if Prop. 56 passes, too, they will have real leverage afterwards. Prop. 56 is the only possible silver lining in this whole mess. Prop. 56 reduces California's almost unique requirement of a 2/3 legislative vote to pass budgets to 55 percent, and included in that will be the power of the majority 55 percent to levy taxes to do so.

Under the 2/3 requirement, there is no political accountability for the budget, because the minority calls the shots. At 55 percent, that will still be the case, but the minority will have to be bigger to block the budget, and it will be that much more likely that the majority will be able to govern.

Then if the people don't like what the majority has done, they can vote them out and the former minority can govern.

While I don't object to making a choice between two candidates with whom I don't agree 100 percent, I hate making a choice knowing that my vote is futile because whoever wins won't be able to do anything, which in California, after all the propositions of the past 25 years, is more and more the case. Prop. 56 will reverse that trend at least a bit.

The other proposition I have no trouble voting for is Prop. 55, the statewide school bond. While there is justifiable concern that when coupled with Prop. 57's $15 billion of borrowing, Prop. 55's $12.3 billion would be too much debt, I look at it the other way.

We need to build and rebuild schools. Doing so is an investment that will pay off in the future in higher earning power for Californians -- to speak of only the tangible benefits.

If one bond should fail, it should be the one for ongoing expenses, not the one that will pay for itself.
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