Patt Morrison Asks

Mac Taylor, California's prop master

The state legislative analyst and his office tell voters everything they need to know about ballot measures and their potential cost to taxpayers.

Mac Taylor

Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor is seen discussing his office's report on the state's fiscal outlook in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / November 18, 2009)

Whoever it was who coined "Lies, damn lies and statistics" didn't trust numbers. You won't find Mac Taylor subscribing to that. He's the state legislative analyst; his name is there in your ballot pamphlet as the source of independent information about ballot measures and their potential cost to taxpayers. He's had the top job in that office for four years, but the California native joined the effort, fresh from Princeton with a master's degree in public affairs, the same year Jerry Brown was elected governor — the first time. He presides over the fiscal Google of Sacramento, a calm think tank in the shark tank of the Legislature's partisan passions.

Why was this office created, in 1941?

I think the Legislature was tired of being dependent on the administration for information. The governor vetoed it. I guess he didn't want any competition. So they set it up through a resolution and later it was put into statute.

We were the first office in the country like this. [The Congressional Budget Office was formed] in 1974. There's a big difference between the CBO and our office: They don't make recommendations. We are specifically authorized to make recommendations on the effectiveness and efficiency of governmental operations.

And you also analyze the ballot propositions.

When I came to the office in '78, we had just been given that responsibility. These are issues with great consequence, and we take it very seriously. We try to meet with the proponents and the opponents [before and] after it qualifies. We'll take any sort of reports anyone wants to give us. We can analyze over 100 initiative measures a year. We do the fiscal analysis before they are circulated [for signatures]. If the initiative qualifies, we do the whole analysis. We say: If you pass this, this is what it would do. In many cases the fiscal impact may not be as important as how it could change the way businesses operate, what information is available to consumers.

Do voters fully understand the impact of their votes? For instance, the way initiatives may tie Sacramento's hands, creating ballot-box budgeting?

In fairness to the voters, they're not given a whole array of choices. It's not like they're in the legislative process and can say, well, we can add this provision or take this one out. A ballot measure is either up or down. The only choices [they've] been given are to pass this tax or [to] spend money or [set up] this program or change the way we regulate. It's that, or nothing at all. Do they sometimes not take into account factors we would like them to? Sure, but that happens in [the Legislature] also. I tend to cut voters a lot of slack on these things. The ballot is filled with complicated, important issues. It's a lot of work for voters.

Why have there been only five legislative analysts in more than 70 years?

It's a tribute to the Legislature that even if they might be upset with a particular recommendation or finding, they haven't intervened. They've left the analyst to serve. You can feel comfortable that if you put out a particular report or say something that upsets a particular member or leader, that that's not going to endanger your job.

You've been working there for 34 years.

I was on the East Coast. I accepted the job [just] before [Proposition 13] passed. They were talking about these huge reductions in government spending, so I was wondering whether I'd made the biggest mistake of my life.

An undergrad classmate of yours at UC Riverside described you as "dispassionate'' even then.

That's probably fair to say. I wasn't as interested in politics and campaigns as I was in public policy. We all have our biases, but I was attracted more to the dispassionate way of looking at problems and issues.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. That's not always a given in this partisan climate.

One thing you discover in public policy is that in many areas there's not a lot of great information, so there can be dispute about the facts. But I wish we spent more time focusing on where we can find some agreement about the problem. If you view everything through a highly partisan lens, you're not likely to get very far in finding where you might agree.

Does one side or the other accuse your office of bias?

Obviously it can be sensitive; when you make recommendations, you can offend people on both sides of the aisle. Anybody can critique what we say; that's fair game. [But if we responded specifically to those who argue with the numbers] we would basically be spending all of our time responding to people who in my view have misused or misstated information. We just try to keep focused on our job and not worry too much about those things.

How has the job changed?

Our basic mission hasn't changed. The way we communicate with people has. Having the Internet to get our information out — [the people] have as easy access to our information in many ways as a [legislator] does.

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