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In 2004, state voters approved Proposition 63 by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin and imposed an additional 1 percent tax on incomes above $1 million to fund improved mental health care. The main selling point for the “millionaires’ tax” was the need to beef up both child and adult programs provided by county governments, which are centrally responsible for public health care. Proponents liked the claim that it would limit the interactions between police officers and people with mental illnesses and raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make care much more widely available. Critics — including then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — warned that this was yet another vague, quickly crafted measure whose deficiencies would haunt taxpayers.
Eighteen years later, the critics appear vindicated. A recent analysis in the Los Angeles Times showed few stakeholders are satisfied with what had been accomplished through the infusion of $29 billion in Proposition 63 funds across the state since 2005. Sure, some problems weren’t anticipated — the explosion of the homelessness crisis as housing costs soared; severe shortages in some categories of health workers; and the fact the pandemic that began in early 2020 sharply added to Californians’ mental stress. But the concerns about sloppy crafting of a far-reaching law were spot on. Counties routinely shift Proposition 63 funds to pay for services previously covered by general funds. They also often stockpile the funds in reserves — even though many have huge backlogs in requests for help. Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, is right when he says it’s time for “a bold reimagining of how we spend money meant for mental health.”
This likely will require a ballot measure amending Proposition 63, which will be bitterly opposed by counties. But if that is what is necessary to bring coherence and transparency to efforts to improve Californians’ mental health, let’s get on with it. Millions of residents need help. Let’s help.