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GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Allow a majority budget vote at last

September 08, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Don't blame Democrats for the record-long budget stalemate that is forcing the state to stiff private suppliers, community colleges and healthcare centers for the poor.

They've tried to compromise, agreeing to cut programs for schools, welfare families and the impoverished aged, blind and disabled. They're even willing to accept some of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget "reforms."

Don't blame Republicans either. They're being asked by the governor to break their pledges -- however misguided they were -- not to raise taxes. Moreover, most are philosophically opposed to taxing people more -- particularly during a recession -- and are sticking to their principles. That's supposed to be an admirable trait.

And Schwarzenegger? The Republican governor has little clout with GOP lawmakers and seems incapable of eliciting any of their votes. But give him credit: He did recently offer a revised budget proposal -- including a one-cent sales tax increase and deeper program cuts -- that could provide the framework for probably the best, most honest deal anyone's going to get.

No, don't blame the politicians, at least not entirely. The chief culprit is that archaic demon: the required two-thirds majority vote for passage of a budget.

It's a good bet that 51% of the Legislature would have voted for a budget by now -- maybe even had one in place for the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. But 67% is required.

Only two other states have such a monstrous hurdle. And both are better positioned to deal with it because, unlike California, their legislatures are lopsidedly dominated by one party.

California's Senate is 63% Democrat; its Assembly 60%.

But in Arkansas, the Senate is 77% Democrat and the house 75%. That state actually requires a three-fourths majority vote on appropriations except for education, highways and paying down debt. That leaves a sizable chunk of the budget that can be passed on a simple majority vote.

Rhode Island's Senate is 84% Democrat; its house 81%. A two-thirds majority is needed, but with that kind of party control, the budget should fly through the Legislature.

Illinois has an intriguing law aimed at ensuring on-time budgets. Until June 1, a budget can be passed by a simple majority. After that, it takes three-fifths.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a hero of fiscal conservatives, long has favored allowing a majority budget vote.

"The two-thirds vote for the budget has not contained spending, and it blurs accountability," McClintock says. "If anything, in past years, it has prompted additional spending as votes for the budget are cobbled together."

Cobbled together by trading votes for pet programs and pork projects.

"It dilutes the responsibility of the majority party for the budget," McClintock continues. With a simple majority vote, he believes, the ruling party "would be much more careful about what it put in the budget."

Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines of Fresno County is moving toward McClintock's position, but isn't quite there yet. "There's a discussion to be had," he concedes.

"As a conservative Republican, it's frustrating to work out a budget that's always bad. You're just trying to make it a little bit better, but it's still never one you like."

Villines adds: "I can understand the argument to let the majority party own the budget. If people realized how out of touch the liberal majority party was, they'd be shocked. Voters would say, 'Why are we electing these liberal Democrats to run California?' "

Whatever. At least the budget might get passed on time.

Both incoming Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) say they'll consider developing a 2010 ballot initiative to permit majority-vote budgets.

"I'm telling you, I'm very serious about it," Steinberg says. "We can't keep doing this. This is ridiculous. It's unproductive."

Bass figures there would be plenty of financial support for a ballot campaign from labor unions, healthcare providers and others who rely on public funds and are frustrated by incessantly tardy budgets.

"This budget crisis we're in is a perfect example of why we need to be like 47 other states," Bass says. "I'm not sure what we have in common with Arkansas and Rhode Island. . . .

"We would have had a budget by the constitutional deadline, June 15."

Maybe not this year. Without a tax increase, it's virtually impossible to permanently plug the current $15-billion deficit hole. And a tax hike also requires a two-thirds majority vote, a handcuff applied 30 years ago by Proposition 13.

Selling Californians -- let alone Republican politicians -- on a simple majority vote for tax increases would be a tough sell. McClintock and Villines would oppose that.

Steinberg and Bass will order up a lot of polling and focus groups before they decide whether to attempt that move. "When you try to do all or nothing, too often you wind up with nothing," Steinberg notes.

Most states, 34, allow taxes to be raised on a majority vote of the legislature. The other 16 require some supermajority.

At the very least, California should return to a pre-1962 law that allowed budgets to be passed on a majority vote if spending didn't increase above 5%. That provision apparently had never been used because budget growth always exceeded 5%. So the clause was clumsily deleted in a constitutional streamlining.

That idea is endorsed by Joel Fox, former president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., the Prop. 13 sponsor. "The 5% cap would serve as a spending limit," he notes.

But I'd go all the way and require only a majority vote for both budget and taxes. Get things moving in Sacramento. The governor can always use his veto.

Let the legislative majority rule and be held accountable. We'll know whom to blame -- maybe even credit.

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george.skelton@latimes.com

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Late state budget: Day 70

California can't pay its bills. The fiscal year began July 1.

Negotiations to resume today.

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