When one's political party is the minority, she or he may tend to favor higher hurdles for the party in power to set new policy. One looks to those obstacles to protect the citizenry from reckless, maniacal leaders, such as our recently departed president. But when one's own party's in power, he or she tends to favor a simple majority-rules system. It's human nature.
In any case, with each passing day, the requirement of a two-thirds majority of the California Legislature when it comes to passing a budget becomes increasingly preposterous. Californians have voted 24 Democrats and 15 Republicans into the state Senate (one seat is vacant) and 51 Democrats and 29 Republicans into the state Assembly. That means 63 percent of state lawmakers are Democrats. If an election results in a 63- to 37-percent split, it's considered a massive landslide. Likewise, a 63-percent majority in the U.S. Senate would be filibuster-proof.
And yet in California, the party that enjoys the overwhelming majority in the Legislature can't get a budget passed because it needs six votes from the minority (three in each house) in order to reach the two-thirds plateau. In the absence of a budget, tax rebates and payments to vendors are withheld, capital-improvement projects are stalled, economic damage ripples outward and confidence in the government sinks to a new low.Only three of the 50 states—Arkansas, Rhode Island and California—require a two-thirds majority to pass a budget at all times (five more states require a supermajority if certain conditions exist). Since we're dealing with percentages, that means 94 percent of states don't require a supermajority to pass a spending plan under normal circumstances.
California's draconian requirement was born during the Great Depression, when voters wanted to curb unsustainable spending in the face of declining tax revenues. In 1933, voters passed Prop. 1, which capped the spending-growth rate at 5 percent of the previous fiscal year—unless two-thirds of lawmakers agreed to eclipse the 5-percent rate. That was the law in California until 1962, when voters passed Prop. 16, which eliminated the important part of Prop. 1—the spending-growth cap—and kept the supermajority requirement.
One rationale for the supermajority requirement holds that it forces compromise between the parties, elevates moderate opinions and results in better government. But that hasn't been the case.
As Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association put it in a December 2008 commentary, “Instead, this super-majority requirement has become the leverage to ensure that a partisan point of view prevails, resulting in state budgets that are monuments to smoke and mirrors and accounting gimmicks rather than smart and sensible matches between revenues and expenditures. The result? Years of ill-considered tax cuts and massive expenditures were enacted when revenues were high—even as Republican and Democratic governors alike warned that these kinds of expenditures could not be sustained.”
Now, a few lawmakers who represent districts where public opinion is far outside of mainstream California can hold the budget hostage until certain policy demands are met. This year, the majority party has been considering scaling back hard-fought environmental and labor protections and giving back money the public had agreed to allocate for mental-health and childhood-development programs—just to entice a few Republicans to vote for a budget that includes some tax increases.
Yes, it's easy for a liberal publication like CityBeat to urge a major policy change that would make things easier for the Democrats in power, but things have become absurd in California, and we understand that what's good for the goose is also good for the gander: In the future, such a change could help Republicans, and so be it. Supermajority mandates should be reserved for things like amending constitutions, which serve as the foundation for the application of laws, not for annual, relatively mundane things like approving a spending plan. If we don't like the way our leaders are spending money, we can vote them out of office (at least in theory—thanks to gerrymandering and the way campaigns are financed, the power of incumbency has become extraordinarily strong).
The supermajority requirement has made California an embarrassment, not to mention the economic chaos it's creating. It should be repealed.
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