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Act Seeks to Lower Bar on Budget Votes

An initiative will appear on the March ballot to drop the two-thirds threshold for passage of spending measures in the Legislature to 55%.

October 25, 2003|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A ballot measure that proponents say will break the budget logjam that has plagued Sacramento for the last several years has qualified to appear before voters in March.

The Budget Accountability Act would change the threshold of votes needed to pass legislative budget measures from a two-thirds majority to 55%. It is supported by a coalition of labor, liberal and government reform groups. Under the current makeup of the Legislature, it would allow majority Democrats to push through a budget, even if it raised taxes, without a single Republican vote.

Opponents labeled it the "blank check initiative."

"When you peel away the window dressing, people realize that this is about whether people want Sacramento politicians to have an easier route to raise taxes," said Al Lundeen, spokesman for Californians Against Higher Taxes, a political action committee organized to fight the initiative.

Supporters of the initiative say it reforms the budget process, adding provisions that would withhold legislators' pay and force them to work exclusively on the budget when the constitutional deadline is missed, and require them to disclose how they voted on the budget in voter guides.

The act would also require lawmakers to put 5% of revenues into a reserve fund in years when state income exceeds projections.

"I don't think requiring a prudent budget reserve is window dressing," said Eric Wooten, advocacy aide for the League of Women Voters of California, one of the groups supporting the measure. "Californians are sick and tired and you can see it in the latest polls. They want real reform. This is real reform."

"We are offering voters a total reform package for a broken system," said Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Californians for Budget Accountability.

If the measure is approved in March, it would kick in in time to affect this year's budget deliberations. The legislative deadline for approving a budget is June 15.

The initiative was drafted when Gov. Gray Davis was still firmly in power and the recall seemed a long shot. At the time, Davis and the Democrats in the Legislature all favored a tax hike. Now, even if the initiative passes and Democrats are able to push a tax increase through the Legislature, it would likely be vetoed by Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has pledged not to increase taxes.

The Budget Accountability Act may not be the only budget measure before voters in March. A coalition of business groups is hoping to overturn SB 2, the bill recently signed into law that expands health coverage to a million Californians. The group argues that the law would cost consumers and businesses billions of dollars.

Voters may also get to decide in March whether the state should go ahead with borrowing $13 billion or more to keep from running out of money. The borrowing was approved in last year's budget but has since run into legal trouble and could fall through.

Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides has encouraged the new governor to come up with an alternative plan in that event. One option is to ensure the bonds' legality by having voters approve them.

Schwarzenegger has hinted that he favors that approach. Lawyers for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is suing to stop the bond sale, say they would consider settling their lawsuit if the bond proposal is brought before voters.

Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte questions the credibility of Angelides' warnings about the bonds. He says attorneys for the state and outside bond counsel signed off on them before they were approved and remained confident they will stand up in court.

On Thursday, Brulte asked why Angelides didn't make such grim predictions before the recall, and suggested the comments were intended to further the treasurer's political ambitions. Angelides has expressed interest in running for governor in 2006.

That prompted Angelides on Friday to send the Senate GOP chief an angry letter.

"I believe yours is a dangerous tack to take, to attempt to sweep under the rug such realistic and cautionary information," he wrote. Angelides said he had been warning about the bonds since before the budget was approved, and attached a letter he sent to Brulte in June in which the treasurer wrote, "I do not believe the deficit financing you have outlined is feasible or prudent."

Brulte told Angelides late Friday that he stands by his comments.

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