Sunday, October 04, 2009

Prop. 71 Fallout: Bond Guru Assails California Voter Initiatives

Bond maven Bill Gross kicked off October by lashing out at California's “perverted” form of government including ballot measures such as Prop. 71, which he said have have “almost tragically shaped” the state's laws.

Gross made his remarks in his monthly commentary, which is widely followed in the financial community. The Southern California resident is the head of the $178 billion Pimco Total Return Fund. He is also a backer of stem cell research at UC Irvine to the tune of $10 million.

For those of you not familiar with ballot measures, Prop. 71 is the voter initiative that created California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which uses borrowed money to finance scientific research for the first time in the nation's history.

Gross deplored the current financial state of affairs in California, which he likened to dog excrement. He wrote:
“Perhaps more than any other state, California has been affected by its perverted form of government, requiring a two-thirds vote by state legislators to effectively pass a budget. In addition, the state’s laws are almost tragically shaped by a form of direct democracy more resemblant of the Jacksonian era, where the White House furniture was constantly at risk due to unruly citizens, high on whisky, and low on morals and common sense. Propositions from conservatives and liberals alike have locked up much of the budget, with Proposition 13 in 1978 reducing property taxes by 57% and Prop. 98 in 1988 requiring 40% of the general fund to be spent on schools.”
Gross continued,
“What is critical to recognize is that both California and the U.S., as well as numerous global lookalikes such as the U.K., Spain, and Eastern European invalids, are in a poor position to compete in a global economy where capitalism is morphing from its decades-long emphasis on finance and levered risk taking to a more conservative, regulated, production-oriented system advantaged by countries focusing on thrift and deferred gratification.”
Prop. 71 is just one of the ballot measures that California voters have approved over the years, although its impact ($6-$7 billion with interest) is tiny compared to the examples that Gross cited.

Nonetheless, government by ballot measure is a poor way to regularly do the people's business. Indeed, one of the chief obstacles to the smooth functioning of the stem cell agency is, in fact, the ballot measure that created it. Like some smothering parent, Prop. 71 effectively prevents the agency from making much-needed changes in its operations, ranging from removing the poorly conceived 50-person staff limit to changing its super-majority quorum requirements, which continue to make it difficult for its board of directors to do business. The board's own attorney earlier this year declared that CIRM is handcuffed. He said that it is impossible for the board or the legislature to make important reforms (see the the Little Hoover Commission findings) without going to another vote of the people, an exceedingly unlikely event, short of a major scandal at the stem cell agency.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item did not contain the reference to Gross' $10 million contribution.)

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