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An all-powerful third

September 18, 2008|Peter Schrag | Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author, most recently, of "California: America's High-Stakes Experiment."

California had a birthday this summer that few people noticed. The happy event was the diamond anniversary of the passage of Proposition 1, which requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to approve a state budget. Nobody, as far as is known, popped a balloon.

The exact date, for those who like trivia, was June 27, 1933, which means the anniversary fell not long after the Legislature missed the June 15 constitutional deadline to pass this year's budget, and just a few days before the beginning of the current fiscal year. Since then, California has set an all-time record for budgetary gridlock -- 80 days and counting.

The two-thirds requirement makes California one of only a handful of states requiring a supermajority to enact a budget. Forty-six states, practicing quaint, old-fashioned democracy, can pass budgets with simple majorities.

The two-thirds rule is an enormous obstacle, yet it was a side issue when it was passed in 1933. The big issue at that time -- how surprising! -- was property tax relief. Like the rest of the country in 1933, California was in the pit of the Depression. The two-thirds threshold was almost an afterthought.

The heart of Proposition 1 was a complicated shift of taxes and revenues between the state and local governments, including an increase in state support for schools. Because the Legislature also was seeking to impose a sales tax, the measure, in an effort to reassure voters that money wouldn't be wasted, included a 5% spending cap that could only be overridden by a two-thirds vote. The ballot argument barely mentioned the spending limit and said nothing about the two-thirds vote. Talk about unintended consequences.

The Constitution's spending restrictions have been amended since 1933, but the two-thirds supermajority rule, which now applies to any budget -- whether or not it increases spending -- has stayed put.

And, of course, it's become a fundamental part of the state's latter-day, near-chronic budget problems because it allows any minority that controls more than a third of the votes in either house -- currently anti-tax Republicans -- to, in effect, veto the budget or any other fiscal measure. Today, in practice, it means that to pass a budget, the Democrats must win over two Republican votes in the Senate and six in the Assembly.

It's a game any number can play, as long as it's one-third plus one. And because of it, governors in the past often have picked off a few urgent votes by offering goodies -- a road project, a bridge, a judgeship, a job for a relative -- to persuadable holdouts.

At the same time, the supermajority requirement also allows political minorities to conceal their obstructionism. A sloppy news media, fearing it might be thought partisan, tends to pin late budgets on the generic Legislature rather than on the obstructionists themselves. This in turn makes it even harder for voters to know who's accountable, both for the delays and for the sausage that's finally produced.

Yes, it used to be easier in the days when there was less partisanship and more collegiality, and when members of the Legislature worked together respectfully to engineer compromises.

Bill Bagley, who was a liberal Republican assemblyman in the 1960s (yes, there once were such things), used to say that it all ended with the passage of the Political Reform Act of 1974, which prohibited legislators from accepting meals and booze from lobbyists (and sometimes other goodies as well).

That, Bagley said, killed the bipartisan card games and the other conviviality in the lobbyists' suites in Sacramento's old Senator Hotel. It was hard to vilify even your toughest political opponents if you'd been drinking with them the night before.

Many of today's reformers, from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger down, argue that redistricting reform measures such as Proposition 11, on the November ballot, would restore comity and end the gridlock.

By taking the power of reapportionment out of the hands of politicians trying to create safe partisan districts and giving it to a "citizens" commission, they contend, the process will create more competitive districts that would elect more moderate legislators. In turn, they say, that would not only reduce budget gridlock but partisanship generally.

But there's a respectable group of political scientists who say we shouldn't bet on it. Among them: UC Berkeley professor Bruce Cain and, more recently, Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, who pointed out in a new study that the gerrymandered districts drawn by the Legislature in 2001 weren't any more partisan than the districts created a decade earlier by a group of presumably nonpartisan state judges.

What seems indisputable is that California's political demographics are such that creating many competitive districts without violating federal law and/or splitting communities is nearly impossible.

There are solutions. The most sensible and the most obvious is to do away with the two-thirds requirement and allow the budget to be passed by a simple majority. But that would probably also require a lower threshold for tax increases, which is something voters soundly rejected just four years ago.

A lot of other changes would help as well -- loosening term limits, for example, to give legislators more of a long-term perspective on the state's problems and its future. But that's also been rejected by voters.

Maybe, despite all the complaints about budget gridlock, voters really prefer that the Legislature doesn't work so well.

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