Political peril looms in

California has had the two-thirds-vote requirement to adopt a state budget for more than seven decades, but generations of Legislatures and governors managed to get budgets, with some exceptions, readily approved and signed into law. For most of those years, good times and bad, approving the budget was almost routine.

Not so now.

Since voters four years ago approved Proposition 58, the budget-balancing initiative, the governor has formally declared fiscal emergencies twice – that’s fully half the time the initiative has been in effect. There have been special sessions before dealing with the budget impasse, but Capitol veterans say they cannot recall a period in which the political atmosphere has been so poisoned and partisan and ineffectual, and in which there is so little sense of urgency, despite the magnitude of the state’s fiscal outlook.
There is an air of paralysis and incompetence in the Capitol. Finger-pointing abounds – at minority Republicans for refusing to negotiate or even put a proposal on the table, at Democrats demanding tax increases in any spending plan, at the governor for his lack of contact with lawmakers, his penchant for public bombast and his seeming lack of basic knowledge of how the Legislature works.  

Why the inertia?

Is it rigged political districts? The two-thirds-vote requirement? Term limits? A disengaged governor?

“Every single factor contributed to the problem,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican political strategist and now the head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “A more equitable redistricting isn’t going to create 120 competitive districts, but if it creates even 15 or 20, you are going to see a common ground develop around which the two parties can gather.”

“The only way a member of the Legislature will ever lose his or her seat is to an ideologically extreme member of their own party,” he said. In voting on the budget, “asking them to cast a vote that contradicts party dogma is asking them to sacrifice their career in the state Legislature. That’s asking for a lot of nobility from a freshmen member.”

Even as lawmakers prepare to ponder – for the third time this year – the existing budget deficit, the unveiling of the governor’s new budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year is only four weeks away.

Whatever the reason, the impasse is profound.

“The problem that largely has been missed is the two-thirds-vote requirement. California plays by rules that no other state in the union plays (except for Arkansas and Rhode Island). We are the largest state, the most diverse state, and we have the most restrictive rules governing our budget process,” said Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes the impacts of California’s budgets.

Both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats, but they lack the two-thirds majority needed to approve the state budget.
In 2007, Schwarzenegger declared an unprecedented fiscal emergency and a budget was approved – a deeply flawed document, as it turned out. This year, he called a second fiscal emergency. The numbers are daunting: an immediate $11.2 billion deficit, and a $15 billion shortage anticipated in the next fiscal year.

A fiscal emergency means the Legislature has 45 days to approve the state budget. If it doesn’t, the Legislature must remain in session until it acts on the budget bill, nor can it consider any other bills except the budget document. The Legislature is barred from going into recess, until the budget is resolved.

The Legislature certainly understands that there is a crisis at hand,” Ross said. “But the fundamental question is what do you do when your rules say you need a supermajority? Does that mean the majority has to give up its core principals in order to win the support of the minority party?”

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