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How Could Prop. 25 Change Calif. Government?

Audio

Aired 9/23/10

How could state government change if voters approve Proposition 25? We speak to KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge about the impact the state legislature's two-thirds vote requirement for passing a budget has had in California. And, we'll also discuss how the role of the political parties could change if a simple majority is all that's needed to pass a budget.

Maureen Cavanaugh: The issues coming up on the November ballot in California are some of the most important and complicated in recent memory. Some of the propositions even contradict each other.

So, through this month and October we'll be examining the propositions here on These Days. We start out with Proposition 25 - which would change the California constitution and make it easier for the majority party in Sacramento to pass a budget. Tom Fudge explored the issue in a post on his new blog On-Ramp, and he’s here to tell us about it. Good morning, Tom.

TOM FUDGE (Reporter, KPBS): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So what is Proposition 25 asking voters?

FUDGE: Well, that’s pretty simple. Proposition 25 is asking voters if they would like to see the legislature be able to pass a budget with a simple majority, that’s 50% plus one. That’s as opposed to the two-thirds majority that is currently required under the Constitution and which has been required in California under the state Constitution since the 1930s. But Prop 25 would change that. All you need’s a simple majority.

CAVANAUGH: And all you need is a simple majority of the voters to change that.

FUDGE: I – Yes, that is true, and that’s a good point because I think there’s a misconception that a lot of people have that to amend the California Constitution you need a two-thirds vote. You don’t. You just need a simple majority if people want to pass Prop 25.

CAVANAUGH: Now we are living through the longest budget delay in California history right now. Is that the motivation, do you think, behind this ballot measure?

FUDGE: Oh, absolutely. It’s not just that. There is a political element to this. Under the current situation, the Democrats are the majority party so, clearly, they’re going to be more in favor of this than are the Republicans who are the minority party but I think that, in general, good government types are looking at the gridlock that we have in California and they’re saying something’s got to happen. And this is one thing that could happen, that could make the process a lot easier. I think if you only needed a majority vote in the legislature right now, we’d certainly have a budget from the legislature. Now, there’d be a question about whether our Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would sign it and that’s always out there, but we’d definitely have a budget by now from the legislature.

CAVANAUGH: Now what kind of problems have been created by this two-thirds requirement for passing a budget?

FUDGE: Well, like I said, I mean, the essential problem is gridlock. California’s a state that seems to be able to pass a budget by a two-thirds majority in situations like we had in the late nineties where we were rolling in money because the dot-coms were coming into existence and creating all this capital gains tax, money that the state had. And so if we’re flush, then you can pass a budget with a two-thirds majority. But lately, I think you know, we have not been flush. And there is such a strong separation between the Republicans in the state House and the Democrats in the state House. The Republicans don’t want any new taxes, they don’t want any raised taxes, and the Democrats are saying, well, we need to cut but we also need to raise revenues. And the two just can’t come together and if you need a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, that virtually guarantees they’re not going to come together.

CAVANAUGH: And it sort of gives the minority party, which happens at this point to be the Republican Party in California, the deciding vote. They get to wield the power as to whether or not a budget gets passed. Is that why Republicans are opposed to Proposition 25?

FUDGE: Oh, absolutely. And I talked to Ron Nehring, who’s the chairman of the State Republican Party and he said that he doesn’t want to—and you would expect to hear this from a Republican—he does not want to make California a more expensive state to live in and he felt if we had Prop 25, maybe you couldn’t raise tax rates, maybe you couldn’t raise tax rates because you still need a two-thirds majority for that under Prop 13, but he said the Democrats would be able to raise fees, which may as well be called taxes. I also talked to Thad Kousser, who’s a political scientist at UCSD, about this and I asked him about that whip hand that the Republicans would still have if Prop 25 passes, which is they would be able to stop a tax increase, a tax rate increase unless the Democrats got a two-thirds majority and he said, well, that will still be the case but the thing you have to understand is if you get good times coming back, let’s say you’ve hard times and good times come back, when that happens, you get more revenue coming into government even if you’re not raising the tax rates, and so the Democrats could take that money and say, okay, we’ve cut all these programs over the years, now we’re going to restore those programs if they can pass the budget with a simple majority.

CAVANAUGH: Now in your blog, on your new blog, On-Ramp, in your post about Prop 25, you raised a very interesting proposition about whether or not if this proposition were passed it might encourage Republicans to seek a majority position in California and you propose the fact that since now they’re in the catbird’s seat with the two-thirds majority rule, they don’t really have to push to become a majority to have an awful lot of power. How was that responded to by the people you spoke with?

FUDGE: Well, my argument was much as you described it. At this point, if the Republicans – if all the Republicans want to do is say no, they can say no because the Democrats need a two-thirds majority to pass a budget and if the Republicans want to, you know, shut down the government and just say no, they can do it as long as they have at least one-third of the legislature. And I suggested in my blog that maybe it would be good for the GOP if they were forced to get a majority to get California to do what the Republicans want. In other words, they would have to become a more mainstream party, they’d have to try to grab the middle as other parties do when they have to win a majority to get what they want. And I put this to Ron Nehring and said to him, well, aren’t the Republicans satisfied the way it is now because you don’t have to get a majority and you don’t really want to work to get a majority, and he said, quote, anybody who makes that claim has no idea what they’re talking about and no credibility whatsoever. So that’s what he thought of my blog post.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, I have to tell you that we have Assemblywoman Lori Saldana on the line. She’d like to comment on this. And Assemblywoman Saldana, welcome to These Days.

LORI SALDANA (Assemblywoman, California State Legislature): Good morning. Thank you so much for taking up this topic. And having gone through – well, I’m in the middle of my sixth budget, you mentioned two states, Rhode Island and Arkansas, with a combined budget of about $10 billion, those two states also require a two-thirds. California with a – with the largest budget in the nation, it’s been over $100 billion, now with the recession it’s under $100 billion, but we also give the governor line item veto power. So last year after we had a budget in September, he could line item veto domestic violence shelter funding and breast cancer screening for low income women funding. And I’m wondering, does Prop 25 eliminate the line item veto because what we still have is this inequality where the governor, after a budget is passed and signed, can line item out programs that are absolutely essential for big parts of our population.

FUDGE: Well, I don’t claim to be the expert on Prop 25 but, no, it does not say anything about eliminating the line item veto and so California would still have the line item veto. As we said, in California you would still need a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise tax rates, so those would still be in place. But there are some things going on in California that are leading to what at least what some people would call reform. One of them is Proposition 25 that would require – that would allow the state House to pass a budget with just a simple majority but California voters have also created a nonpartisan committee to redraw legislative district lines. This was something, by the way, that was pushed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And they’ve approved a primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of primary, advance to the general election. And these are two things which are certainly meant to try to make Sacramento less partisan, less hard Republican, less hard Democrat, and we’ll have to see if those work. I mean, both of them are under fire. One is in – one is subject to a lawsuit, the other is subject to a proposition that would try to reverse it this coming November but reform is happening in California and I think that’s very interesting.

CAVANAUGH: And reform questions are on the ballot this November. I want to thank Assemblywoman Lori Saldana for calling in. Thank you – Thank you, Assemblywoman. Thanks so much for the question and for also giving us a sort of a firsthand account of what it’s like to be up there trying to pass a budget season after season. But just to make the point, to reiterate the point you made, Tom, about the opponents of Prop 25, they say, you know, you give a majority party like the Democrats the right to pass their own budget and we’re going to see taxes going up. Well, at least fees going up.

FUDGE: We will not see taxes…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

FUDGE: …per se.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

FUDGE: Tax rates going up. We may see, as Thad Kousser points out, we may see more tax revenue coming in when times get good but the tax rates won’t be raised unless you can get a two-thirds vote on that specific issue. But, again, Ron Nehring claims that there are all sorts of fees out there that are, you know, kind of masquerade as fees but they’re actually taxes and those could be subject to increase if the Democrats can pass a budget with a 50% majority.

CAVANAUGH: But there’s nothing to say the Democrats are going to stay the majority in Sacramento.

FUDGE: And that’s kind of my argument. If the Republicans have to get a majority, have to work to get a majority to run things in Sacramento, my guess is they’d work a little harder to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to talk to you just a little bit about your new blog, On-Ramp, because this is a new endeavor for you, Tom. Why did – Tell us a little bit more about this blog and your motivation behind it, the issues you plan to do posts about.

FUDGE: Well, my motivation behind it is I think it’s a very exciting thing to do. You know, blogging is something which didn’t used to be a journalistic exercise I suppose 10 or even 5 years ago. I mean, a blog was a weblog and anybody who had an internet and who had a computer and internet access could sort of keep a little diary and put it out in public and people could read it and they could talk about the things that they like and the things they did that day. But blogs have just become such a powerful force in this country that journalistic organizations like KPBS and NPR want to use them. And so I’m very excited to be part of this new movement. The idea for On-Ramp, you may be interested to hear this, Maureen, is that it’s meant to be very interactive. It’s meant to be kind of journalism on the fly. Matt Thompson, who’s an NPR blogging god, who’s actually visiting San Diego at the moment…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

FUDGE: …describes it this way. With the blog, it’s not the story but the stream. In other words, it’s not you write a story and it goes up there and then you’re done with that and you go on to another story. If you get a little bit of information, you put that on your blog, you get people to respond to it, and it’s a stream that you’re working on, and it’s a little bit like hosting a talk show because this is what you do on These Days. You’re kind of doing journalism on the fly. You allow people to call in, you interact with your public, and hopefully by the end of the hour you’ve said something important. And this is a little bit what the blog is like, what On-Ramp, we hope, is going to be like.

CAVANAUGH: Do you put a little bit more of yourself, your opinion or perhaps your personal experience as you’re telling the stories about the news on your blog than you would in a regular news story?

FUDGE: Oh, yes, and that’s the thing that really makes it fun. You get to break some of the rules. And there was a lot of talk at KPBS about how we should handle that on our website and what the powers that be here decided that what we would do is, when it came to my blog, it would be labeled insight, not commentary, not analysis, but insight. I take that as a compliment because it suggests that everything I write is going to be insightful, which may not be true but it allows me to do a little bit of diary, it allows me to give my opinion where a straight reporter might not give his or her opinion. And so, yeah, it’s not quite like having a column, like being a newspaper columnist, but it’s a little bit like that.

CAVANAUGH: It’s like straddling those two ideas.

FUDGE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So what are you going to post about next?

FUDGE: Well, actually I am going to – later today I’m going to post – do a blog post about your interview yesterday with Bill Moyers, who I find a very interesting guy, a guy who came onto the national scene back during the Johnson administration. He was President Johnson’s press secretary. He was involved with a very controversial campaign ad known as the “Daisy Ad,” which suggested if Barry Goldwater were elected, there would be nuclear Armageddon. So anyway, I’m going to write about that.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, we can’t wait to see it. Tom, thank you. And thanks so much for telling us about Proposition 25. I think we’re going to hear a lot more about that as election season rolls on.

FUDGE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go online. You can check out Tom Fudge’s new blog, On-Ramp, and you can also post your comments at KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, another statewide measure on the November ballot. We’ll be talking about Proposition 23. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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