EDITORIAL: There's no way to know if Prop. 63 is working

FresnoAugust 19, 2013 

This is known: California spent $7.4 billion between 2006 and 2012 from an income tax on millionaires approved by voters who hoped to improve care for people who suffer from severe mental illness.

This is not known: Was the money spent wisely? Did the money do as much good as it should have done? Was it shoved down a rat hole, never to be seen again?

An audit by the Bureau of State Audits could not answer these questions. To the contrary, the audit detailed how a succession of departments and officials failed to obtain the most basic information from counties that spend most of the money.

"Lacking meaningful and complete data, the state is hindered in its ability to report on the success of programs and to assure taxpayers that their funds are not being wasted," says the audit, which focused on Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and Sacramento counties.

Voters should find the report frustrating. Legislators should not be surprised if the audit further fuels public skepticism about government's ability to use the people's money for the greatest good.

Distressed about homeless mentally ill people and the tens of thousands of mentally ill filling prisons and jails, voters in 2004 approved Proposition 63, which imposes an extra 1% income tax on people who earn $1 million or more annually.

The tax generates $1 billion a year for what was the chronically underfunded system of care for severely mentally ill people. The extra $1 billion may or may not be enough. There is no way to know whether the Mental Health Services Act is working.

Do individuals who receive help because of Prop. 63 spend fewer days in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards than before they received the service? Are they jailed fewer days and do they spend less time homeless? Do programs that are designed to prevent illness among young people work? Those questions and many others remain unanswered, nine years after voters approved Prop. 63.

One of the most urgent questions is whether the funding goes where it's most needed: to the severely mentally ill. Critics of Prop. 63 spending can point to questionable uses of the money, such as yoga, horseback riding, gardening, the purchase of iPads, and a public relations video that is being passed off as a serious documentary.

Assembly Member Dan Logue, a Butte County Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who requested the audit, say they intend to press for better reporting, as well they should.

Anyone who walks through any city in California, or hikes along any river, knows that many people with severe mental illness remain homeless. Jails and prisons are filled with mentally ill inmates.

The question remains: Is there a need for more money, or should the available money be used more wisely? Before lawmakers spend more money, voters deserve to know the answer.


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