Groping our way back to majority rule

This is the summer of California's discontent.

The economy is tanking, the state is broke and its bond rating is mired in junk territory, the people have said no to the Governor's trick bag of faux fixes, and Mr. Schwarzenegger is ready to take a meat axe to essential services. Barring some last-minute political miracle, by the 4th of July firms doing business with the state will be receiving IOUs instead of checks in payment for their goods and services. Should the impasse drag on through the dog days of summer, by Labor Day the Golden State could well resemble a failed state as state parks are closed and prison cells emptied to save money, cops are laid off by local governments no longer able to pay their salaries, tuition aid stops flowing to needy college students, and ever larger numbers of California's indigent and infirm are cut off from the assistance they rely on to survive.

Yet simply raising taxes or cutting services will not cure what really ails us – which is not a budget out of balance so much as a political system out of whack. After decades of ill-considered, ballot-box tinkering, Californians now find themselves saddled with a government incapable of governing in the face of the most serious economic crisis to befall the state in eighty years.

In the spring of 1933 – during the darkest days of the Great Depression – voters amended the state constitution to require budget increases of more than five percent be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature. Yet, even though budgets frequently increased by more than five percent during those difficult years, and control of the Legislature often changed hands between Republicans and Democrats, they were approved by large majorities.

But that was before the advent of Ronald Reagan in 1970, and his poisonous notion that government was not the solution but the problem. When inflation began pushing property taxes rapidly higher in California toward the end of Reagan's tenure as governor, a snake-oil salesman named Howard Jarvis placed a measure on the ballot ostensibly aimed at protecting seniors from being taxed out of their homes.

Proposition 13 promised to dramatically roll back property taxes and limit future increases to just one percent, and won in a landslide. Who knew that its greatest beneficiaries would turn out to be the oil giant Chevron and other large corporate landowners? Or that Prop 13 would beggar local governments and cripple public education in California? Little notice was also given to the poison pill, buried in the measure's fine print, requiring all future tax increases to also be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature.

Voters retaliated a decade later with Proposition 95 requiring that 40 percent of general revenue funds be spent on public schools. It, too, received strong public support at the polls, further tying lawmakers' hands and compounding the difficulty they faced in matching revenues with expenses.

Several other states require supermajorities to either raise taxes or approve budgets but only California requires both-supposedly to discourage wasteful spending and promote bipartisanship by forcing lawmakers to compromise. Instead, it has become a weapon in the hands of an extremist minority bent on shrinking government to the point where it will only be capable of serving the interests of the fortunate few who put them in office.

"Doing away with the two-thirds requirement for passing a budget would bring more lawmakers to the middle and end the extreme partisanship that has polarized the Legislature," says former Assembly Speaker Robert M. Hertzberg, co-chair of California Forward, a high-powered alliance of business, civic and political leaders based in Southern California committed to what the group describes as "an ambitious bipartisan effort to remake California state government."

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