Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The real work of Democratic government gets done in the middle of the political spectrum. The politicians who appeal to the suburban soccer moms can build party majorities and pass legislation. But in California, things are a little different.
SAN DIEGO The real work of Democratic government gets done in the middle of the political spectrum. The politicians who appeal to the suburban soccer moms can build party majorities and pass legislation. But in California, things are a little different.
We're one of only three states in the nation that require their legislatures to pass a budget by a two-thirds vote. So even if a party can command the middle, and control a majority of the legislature, that's not enough to pass a budget. Lately, this has meant political stasis is status quo in the Golden State. It’s why California is in a record-long state budget battle with no end in sight.
But there’s something on the horizon that could change things. It’s Proposition 25, on the November ballot, which would allow the legislature to pass a budget on a simple majority: 50 percent plus one.
Thad Kousser is a political scientist at UCSD who says the current situation means most voters are not getting what they want.
"We've trimmed severely in the last two years with the global financial crisis much more than the average voter wants,” he said, “because a minority in the legislature was driving those budget cuts."
That minority is called the Republican Party. The two-thirds vote requirement means California's GOP has been able to stop any budget that includes increased revenues. Now if Proposition 25 passes, the GOP will still have the power to prevent tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote under Prop 13. (California is the only state in the country that requires a super-majority vote to pass a budget and a tax increase).
But Kousser says Democrats could still increase the size of government programs in an improving economy, thanks to increasing tax revenues, if voters pass Proposition 25.
"When the economy comes back, even without raising tax rates, there will be more money available to spend in government,” he said.
If you still need a super-majority to pass a budget, on the other hand, the Republicans would hold out to give those increased revenues back to taxpayers.
Giving increased tax revenues back to taxpayers sounds fine to Ron Nehring, the chairman of the state GOP. Nehring says California Republicans are opposed to Proposition 25 because it would allow Democrats to raise fees that might as well be called taxes.
“And making it easier to make it more expensive to live in California really is the last thing we should be doing in the state,” he said.
But I wonder what would really happen if Proposition 25 passes? What if the Democratic Party were able to pass a budget and be forced to take responsibility for it, rather than blaming Republicans for standing in the way? What if the Republicans were forced to try to become the majority party, to win over the middle and grab the reins in Sacramento? Under the current system, all the GOP needs is at least a third of the vote to stop government in its tracks. And stopping government in its tracks seems to be what party ideologues want to do.
So what do you think, Ron Nehring? Isn’t the Republican Party perfectly satisfied to remain the minority party as long as the California law guarantees you can’t pass a budget or raise taxes without a super-majority vote?
"Anybody who makes that claim has no idea what they're talking about and no credibility whatsoever," he said.
History tells us that Proposition 25 will probably fail. In 2004, California voters rejected by a wide margin Proposition 56, which would have reduced the legislative majority needed from two-thirds to 55 percent to pass budgets and increase taxes. But Sacramento political consultant Leo McElroy says things could be different this year.
"I think the one dynamic that might give Proposition 25 a chance is the continuing disgust at the performance of the legislature, and the long, long budget standoff this year," he said.
Californians have tried to affect that political stasis. State voters have created a non-partisan committee to redraw legislative district lines. They've approved a primary system in which the two top vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. If Prop 25 also passes, government reform in California will be a reality. We just have to wait and see if it does any good.