Collaborative budgeting in initiatives

Problem (?)

California (and presumably some other places) allow voter initiative measures in which the voters can directly pass statues and constitutional amendments. This mechanism has been used to pass many measures that constrain budgets. For example, California Proposition 98 (amended by Proposition 111) mandates a minimum amount of spending on education, according to a formula (the formula may be suspended for 1 year with the consent of 2/3s of the legislature and the governor). Some commentators think that the patchwork of constraints is responsible for California's budget deficit although this is disputed by others who believe that the most of the money mandated by constraints would spent that way anyway [1]. Some of the commentators who think that constraints are the problem think this is evidence that direct democracy doesn't work and that the initative system should be abolished.


I am not convinced that initative measures are causing California's budget deficit, but assuming for the sake of argument that they are, I do not think that direct democracy needs to be abolished. A better solution is to design a voting procedure that is more likely to return a balanced budget.

Instead of considering each spending measure in isolation, voters should consider the whole budget at once. A specialized budget voting procedure should be chosen which results not in a list of English-language constraints, but rather, a list of, for each spending item, how much money should go to that item. A well-defined procedure will allow voters (or the legislature) to separately consider the questions of (1) how much money should be spent, and (2) what it will be spent on.

For example, here is a simple "collaborative budgeting" procedure. Each voter could submit a ballot with a complete budget. From each ballot, two types of information could be extracted: (1) the __proportion__ given to each item, and (2) the total amount of spending. To determine the actual total amount of spending, the total amounts of spending from the ballots could be averaged. To determine the actual amount spent on each item, the proportions from the ballots could be averaged, and then the resulting proportion multiplied by the total amount of spending. The budget obtained in this fashion would serve as a starting point for deliberation in the legislature. The proportional allocations from the budget obtained in this fashion could be amended a few at a time by the legislature, but the total spending amount would be binding (that is, each legislative amendment that increased spending on one item would have to decrease spending on a handful of other items to compensate).

The procedure given above is simple, but other procedure have been proposed which allow voters to express budget allocations in absolute terms, rather than proportions, for example: Tax rates could be set in a similar fashion. Instead of considering the total amount of spending, the procedure could use the amount of surplus/deficit.