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01.07 Facing a Choice in California

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

A lot of people have been watching the California fiscal crisis nervously, wondering what it could mean for other cash-strapped states and even the federal government. This week we got a glimmer of what it might mean: putting choices before the public.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put forth a plan to cut spending on state prisons and shift the money to higher education. Not only that, but he also proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure that the percentage the state spends on prisons never exceeds spending on higher education. Like nearly everything else in California, this would have to go before the voters in a referendum.

Whatever the merits of the idea and its prospects for actually becoming law Schwarzenegger's proposal does something that happens too rarely in politics: putting two different priorities on the table, effectively saying to the public: "Pick one. Colleges are important; so are prisons, but there's only so much money to go around, with California facing another $20 billion deficit this year. I choose colleges. Which do you prefer?"

The idea of choice, of helping the public decide between competing public priorities, is central to public engagement. Under the right conditions, people can and do weigh alternatives and make sound judgments between options. We've seen that in public engagement projects all around the country, on all kinds of topics.

Still, there are a lot of complicated tradeoffs here, and it's not clear whether Californians will get much help figuring them out. There are serious questions about how to cut prison spending and whether privatizing them (Schwarzenegger's preferred option) is a good idea, and about the efficiency of the higher education system. Critics are already raising doubts about whether California needs any more locked-in, voter-mandated programs in a state budget that's already full of them.

Now that Schwarzenegger has put the choice on the table, the next question for leaders, advocates and the media ought to be: what do Californians need to know in order to make it wisely? What are the key facts about colleges, prisons, and the state budget? What are the pros and cons of each path?

And make no doubt about it, there will be pros and cons on both sides. There always are. People can deal with that if you give them a chance as well as a choice.


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