California’s Budget Mess

Once more California is in financial crisis mode because the Assembly cannot pass a budget. The longer the budget is stalled, the more costly it is to the state. This situation occurs every year and it is one that the state can ill afford, especially at a time of economic downturn.

The reason why this happens is that because a shortsighted voter initiative requires the state budget to be passed by a two-thirds majority vote in the State Assembly and Senate. While one party can have a simple majority, it is impossible for one party to have two thirds. At present the Democrats hold the simple majority, but the dilemma will be exactly the same when the Republicans hold the majority. So even when they do reach a compromise, it is always a budget that cannot work, a budget that contains a large dose of wishful thinking needed to get it passed. Add to this an intransigent governor, as at present, and there is a triangle of opposites that must be accommodated. Since he has a line item veto, the budget is further compromised.

In a situation like this, a super majority is really not a majority. It flies in the face of basic democratic principles. The power is held by the minority party in order to make up the required two-thirds. The fate of the budget can therefore end up depending on the vote of one assemblyman in the minority party – a situation that has happened. It is unconscionable that one person should be able to hold the whole state at ransom. That is not democracy!

In addition to the impasses, there are no senior members on either side in the Assembly who can exert their influence to facilitate the budgetary process. This is due to another shortsighted voter initiative, which prevents assemblymen from serving more than three terms of two years each. So far-reaching decisions end up being made by rookies and sophomores.

The financial mess that California finds itself in cannot be fixed until both those initiatives are overturned.

There is a chance that the undemocratic two-thirds majority will be overturned this November through Proposition 25 (2010), which restores the simple majority to the budgetary process. Opponents of the proposition see tax increases implied in the initiative, or at least that is what they will use in an attempt to defeat it. Such increases are not in the proposition.

It is possible that following passage of Proposition 25 (2010), a budget could pass on a simple majority with tax increases, just as a budget could pass with deep cuts in social services. The governor still remains as a factor that has to be accommodated. And the electorate can vote out those who supported the undesired aspects in the budget, or recall the governor, or vote in a new governor next time. In other words, it is the democratic process at work.