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Measure Would Ease Budget Passage

Backers say reducing approval threshold from two-thirds to 55% would end gridlock. Foes fear tax increases.

February 29, 2004|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Proposition 56 is pitched by supporters as an antidote to years of state budget gridlock that has wreaked havoc on the finances of local governments, schools and social service programs caught in the cross-fire.

But, opponents say, making it easier for lawmakers to reach consensus on a spending plan means making it easier for them to raise taxes.

The initiative, called the Budget Accountability Act, would lower the number of legislative votes needed for budget approval and new taxes from a two-thirds to a 55% majority. With the current makeup of the Legislature, that would allow Democrats to send a budget on to the governor without a single Republican vote. Budget approval now requires the votes of at least two Senate Republicans and six Assembly Republicans.

"Nobody thinks the budget process works right now," said Anthony Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Health Access, which is part of a large coalition of anti-poverty, education, good-government and other groups campaigning for Proposition 56. "This is a neutral reform for a budget process that has been producing late and irresponsible budgets."

Wright and other supporters point out that California is one of only a dozen states that require such a "supermajority" of the Legislature to approve a budget. They point to a report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that concludes that states in which the threshold is lower are only slightly more likely to increase taxes.

Businesses and conservative taxpayer groups, however, say the track record of California Democrats on taxes speaks for itself. They point to scores of new tax bills that have been introduced over the last few years but went nowhere because Republicans could block them.

"Even within this last legislative session, the two-thirds vote has stymied tens of millions worth of tax increases," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "It has been an effective barrier."

But Fred Silva, a budget analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California, suggested that Democrats sometimes propose tax hikes under the current system for political reasons, making it look as if they are trying to solve a problem but are being blocked by Republicans.

Yet, he said, they may stop short of actually pushing such proposals through for fear of voter backlashes.

During last year's budget debate, most Democrats pushed for a hike in income taxes on the wealthy and a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax. Proposals for new taxes on gasoline, alcohol, forest products and a variety of other items were also submitted.

Along with lowering the number of legislative votes needed to pass a budget and raise taxes, the Budget Accountability Act includes other reforms intended to break the gridlock in Sacramento and shed more light on the budget process for the public.

They include docking the pay of lawmakers when a budget is late and printing information about the budget on state voter guides, as well as creating a website where voters could go to find out how their representatives voted on the budget.

The initiative also would require that the state set aside money for a rainy day reserve.

The reserve requirement is similar to one in Proposition 58, which is part of the governor's economic recovery package also on Tuesday's ballot.

Supporters of the Budget Accountability Act, however, say their provision would more tightly restrict lawmakers' use of the reserve. And unlike Proposition 58, the Budget Accountability Act would require legislators to pay into the reserve only when the state is flush with cash.

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