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Op-Ed

End minority rule in California

California can no longer afford to let the two-thirds mandate decide its future.

October 18, 2011|By Kevin de León
  • Next year, voters may be asked to do away with the California Constitution's two-thirds requirement to raise taxes. Above, the state capitol building in Sacramento is pictured on Jan. 5, 2010, the night before Gov. Jerry Brown's "state of the state" address. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Next year, voters may be asked to do away with the California Constitution's…

California's controller announced last week that the state is $705 million short of its budget projections, which probably will trigger more spending cuts. You or someone close to you will be negatively affected by these dramatic cuts. They will hurt. For some, they will cause irreversible pain.

If the triggers are pulled, about $2.5 billion in state investments in healthcare and education will be slashed. Those cuts will include an additional $200 million in higher education as well as

$30 million in higher tuition fees. About $1.8 billion is likely to be cut from K-12 education, which will probably mean seven fewer days in the school year as well as the elimination of school bus transportation.

A promise to make these cuts if revenues didn't meet expectations was necessary to pass the current budget, but that doesn't mean more cutting is good for California. A majority of those who voted for the deeper cuts had deep misgivings, but leadership required us to act, and because of the state's laws, we had very few options for closing our massive budget deficit.

There has to be a better way. We cannot right the ship of California without a lasting budget solution.

As deep and painful as the current cuts are, and as much as they will negatively affect most of California, they don't in any way solve our chronic deficit.

Addressing budget issues is usually a balancing act in which cuts are weighed against revenue increases to find the best solution for the state. But in California, balanced solutions just aren't possible because of the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve any tax increase. Many arguments have been made about how undemocratic this mandate is. It means a small minority can dictate to the rest of the state.

More immediate, however, is the massive obstacle it represents to forward movement. At a time when we should be putting people to work, we are instead eliminating jobs because a small minority refuses to compromise.

The two-thirds mandate has erected a Berlin Wall of budgeting that leaves us all on one side saddled with lingering troubles, even as we can see the Golden State we all seek sitting elusively and tantalizingly on the other side.

The two-thirds mandate denies voters a representative democracy. An overwhelming majority of voters can elect legislators willing to take a more balanced approach to budgeting, but the electorate's will is easily thwarted by a tyrannical minority so scared of popular sentiment that it refused even to allow Californians to vote on whether they would like to see a change. Meanwhile, it is abundantly clear that the more than $50 billion in cuts made over the last three years have not created the hoped-for prosperity.

We cannot attack the massive challenge of putting millions of Californians back to work while we are focused solely on what to eliminate. Much progress has been made toward living more austerely, but we have now gone through trimming fat and have reached the bone. California's peerless system of higher education and its gleaming infrastructure of roads and dams and bridges are crumbling — yet they are expected to endure further cuts.

California voters must come to grips with the fact that we can't build a better future with our arms tied. According to Dan Fuss, vice chairman of the investment firm Loomis Sayles, "About 56% of Americans over the age of 16 are gainfully employed. If that percentage rose to 64%, the nation's budget deficit disappears entirely."

Though this would be a challenging employment number to hit, the calculation underscores the fact that employment must be our focus. Any serious discussions about California's budget deficit must center first on jobs. And any serious discussion about creating employment in California must begin with putting all solutions on the table.

Eliminating the two-thirds vote requirement for raising revenue is a start. It then would be incumbent on a majority of legislators and the governor to craft a solution that creates a lean California government that invests in its resources. The global economic crisis has created a new reality, but we cannot simply wave the white flag and surrender. We must be creative in working with California businesses to provide the necessary tools so real hiring can begin again.

I am not afraid to face voters and explain that reasonable revenue increases are needed. It is the continued joblessness that is truly frightening.

We can no longer afford to hamstring our future because of an outmoded and undemocratic mandate that allows a minority to dictate to the majority. We must change it so we can move forward and finally get back to restoring our critical infrastructure and education system.

But only you the voters can do that. It is quite possible that next year, Californians will be asked to decide the issue with a ballot measure that would get rid of the two-thirds requirement. The system as it exists lacks fundamental accountability, and it is un-American.

Mr. and Mrs. Voter, please help us tear down this wall.

Kevin de León is a Democratic state senator whose district includes part or all of downtown Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, Alhambra, Maywood, San Marino, South Pasadena, Vernon and Walnut Park.

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