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Majority rule: Is the public’s attitude changing?

As a result of this year's long and costly budget battle, it is a virtual certainty that next year's general election ballot will feature a measure to end the existing two-thirds requirement for passing budgets and allow a simple majority of lawmakers to once again approve state spending plans. The Secretary of State has already approved the wording of one such initiative and others are in the works. However, statewide polling is now under way to determine if the California electorate has also changed its collective mind about requiring supermajority approval to raise taxes.

"Yes, it probably has," says David Binder, whose San Francisco-based political consulting firm is reportedly conducting the highly confidential poll for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The union has more than 700,000 members in California, including some 95,000 state civil service workers, making it far and away the state's richest and most powerful labor organization. If Binder's right, and an initiative to drop the two-thirds requirement over both budgeting and taxation finds its way onto next year's ballot, majority rule could well become the defining issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

"The subject has been polled to death," counters a skeptical John Burton, chairman of the Democratic Party of California. "A ballot measure to approve budgets by majority rule won't pass if it is linked to raising taxes. It's as simple as that."

But is it?

Recent evidence suggests that the public's attitude toward supermajorities may have undergone a sea change since two out of three voters five years ago rejected Proposition 56, a ballot measure to lower the bar for passing budgets from two-thirds to 55 percent. A statewide poll conducted in January of this year by the establishment-oriented Public Policy Institute found that 54 percent considered such a change a "good idea." The same question was posed in a PPIC survey conducted earlier this month and 53 percent responded favorably.

PPI president Mark Baldassare reads these results as "visible signs that those normally in opposition to one another (i.e. business and labor) are now joined in opposition to the two-thirds requirement" for passing budgets. But a two-thirds supermajority is also required to pass revenue bills, and PPI has not queried the public on lowering that requirement "because it hasn't yet surfaced as a public issue," he demurred.

But lowering the bar for one but not the other would accomplish little, since budgeting and taxation are two sides of the same coin, and pressure is mounting among grass-roots Democrats and labor's rank and file to restore majority rule over both.

In a pointed challenge to chairman Burton, the party's executive board late in July unanimously approved a resolution favoring "a change to only require a simple majority (like the U.S Congress and 80 percent of states) for revenue bills, thus restoring majority rule and representative democracy to California's government."

"They could have done something awhile ago"  to end the budget standoff, grumbled one of the resolution's prime movers who requested anonymity in order to avoid the wrath of Chairman Burton. "Impeaching the governor only takes a simple majority of the Assembly," he observed wryly, "but the Democratic Party is apparently more interested in being liked than respected."

For the first 85 years of California's existence, taxing and spending decisions were made by a simple majority of lawmakers, and the state prospered. Even after voters imposed the two-thirds requirement during the Great Depression, budgets typically moved through the legislature and to the governor's desk without undue fuss or delay.

It wasn't until the enactment of Proposition 13 in 1978 that two-thirds also became the hurdle for passing revenue bills, empowering a radical minority of antigovernment Republicans to impose their will on the more moderate Democratic majority.

But a counter-revolt is brewing among grass-roots Democrats and rank-and-file union workers hard-hit by this latest budget "compromise," purchased as it was with job losses and pay cuts, as well as draconian reductions in education, health care, law enforcement and a myriad of other vital public services.

"We're big supporters of majority rule, it's the foundation of this country," declares Willie Pelote, assistant director for political action for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the few unions to take a firm public stand on majority rule over taxation.

Yet Marty Hittelman, leader of the California Federation of Teachers, supports majority rule over budgeting, "although that would only make things a little better and won't solve the problem of minority rule," but thinks trying to do the same for taxes is "unwinnable."

However, decades of legislative gridlock have caused a growing number of Californians to see the link between minority rule and the state's decline, and few believe the recent near-death experience over the state's finances means the crisis is over.

"Significant parts" of the onerous budget deal struck in July, when cash flow dried up and the state was forced to issue IOUs, "won't produce the savings and revenues assumed," according to Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a non-profit organization that analyses the state's fiscal policies with an eye toward their effect on low- and moderate-income groups. If the economy continues to weaken – and independent studies recently released by economists at UCLA and Pepperdine University forecast continued decline through next year – Ross believes "another revenue crisis could happen when taxes are due in December."

Meanwhile, the deadline for qualifying a ballot measure for next year's general election is drawing near, and all eyes are on the Service Employees International Union – the only group with the money and manpower to mount a statewide campaign. Whether that happens depends largely on SEIU's polling results due this week, and Democratic Party Chairman John Burton says he'd be "willing to change my mind based on the evidence."

If the numbers show such an epic fight to be winnable, labor and its Democratic allies would have a mighty war chest and a vast army of activists at their command. Their victory would put power over the public purse back in the hands of the moderate majority, break the gridlock that has rendered this state ungovernable, and place California back on a progressive track to prosperity.

It might even put the organization back in organized labor, and reunite fractious Democrats.

Don't laugh. It could happen.

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