New Proposition Would Make It Easier to Burn Up Money

California is once again unable to pass a state budget, and Proposition 25 promises to end the impasse once and for all. The November ballot initiative would amend the state constitution to allow budgets to pass with a simple majority, rather than the currently required two-thirds supermajority.

Previous efforts to repeal the supermajority have failed because voters fear making it easier for politicians to raise their taxes more than they fear "budget gridlock." So the framers of Prop. 25 claim the straight-majority change will only apply to budgeting, not to the levying of new taxes. It even says so in the initiative's title: "Changes Legislative Vote Requirement to Pass a Budget from Two-Thirds to a Simple Majority. Retains Two-Thirds Vote Requirement for Taxes. Initiative Constitutional Amendment."

Theoretically, you could pass a budget without passing any new taxes -- and the state government's vast and growing battery of "fees" has helped it to raise taxes without officially raising taxes. But it's incongruous to grant budgeting power without the power to raise revenues, and it's no surprise that supporters already envision Prop. 25 paving the way for increased fees and, with luck, higher taxes.

Joe Mathews -- a supporter of straight majority for both the budget and for new taxes -- raises another reason to be skeptical of Prop. 25: The right sort of people still aren't in charge. He points out that two recent initiatives -- 2008's redistricting initiative Prop. 11, and the "Top Two" open primary initiative Prop. 14, which was approved last month -- have not yet cured Sacramento of its free-spending ways:

Part of the trouble is that the reforms in Prop 11 and Prop 14 have yet to take effect. The other part of the trouble is that the two measures, for all their virtues, are unlikely to make big changes in how our legislature operates. The intense partisanship of both parties and the sorting of Californians into like-minded communities will make it extraordinarily difficult to produce more competitive legislative districts. And there's little evidence that Prop 14's change in primary rules will produce more than a few moderates-and it's far from clear that electing more moderates will fix the legislature.

Prop 25, in a way, suffers from the same disease as Prop 11 and Prop 14-it's a fine, but not quite good enough to change much measure. In fact, by making it easier to pass spending while keeping the 2/3 restriction for new revenues that makes it so difficult to raise taxes, Prop 25 could make deficits worse.

What would be a better approach? Begin with a deeper change in legislative elections, by scrapping our current system of single-member districts elected in first-past-the-post plurality contests. Replace it with a system of multi-member districts that represent the distinct regions of California and elect at least some of those members proportionally, so that everyone has representation and so that the parties compete everywhere.

Things are going so bad so fast for California governance that it's hard even for a sharp and informed observer like Mathews to keep his categories straight. If he's looking for more proportional and minority representation, he should note that Prop. 14 -- which essentially turns the November election into a runoff of the primary -- can only achieve the opposite.

But assuming that 11 and 14 did bring a better type of leadership to Sacramento, Prop. 25 would still be of dubious value. Just about every year, the state misses its June 15 deadline to pass a new budget, and yet California is still standing. Prop. 25 could solve a problem most voters don't really notice: delays in getting budgets passed. It would create a problem voters will definitely notice: either bigger deficits or, much more likely, new taxes. And it wouldn't solve -- and would probably exacerbate -- the one problem that is actually a problem: vast increases in spending by a bankrupt state.

Straight-majority advocates have a theory about supermajority: that it paradoxically leads to more spending in the form of pork to coax votes from what they view as a fanatical rump of Republican legislators. But that kind of horse trading doesn't get you to a permanent deficit of at least $20 billion. For that you need the enthusiasm of both parties and the structural spending commitments that have been locked in by the same unions that are the main backers of Prop. 25. Making it easier for the creators of the broken budget to spend even more money is a strange kind of fiscal responsibility.

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  • ||

    Gotta just love buring up money right? I mean seriously.

  • skr||

    so, where do i get my "no on prop 25" sticker?

  • JoshINHB||

    What would be a better approach? Begin with a deeper change in legislative elections, by scrapping our current system of single-member districts elected in first-past-the-post plurality contests. Replace it with a system of multi-member districts that represent the distinct regions of California and elect at least some of those members proportionally,

    Sounds like another cluster fuck.

    A real solution would be a unicameral legislature and a unitary executive or a parliamentary type system where the executive is the leader of the legislature.

  • ||

    A real solution would be splitting off the coast from SF to LA into a separate state that could go straight to hell in a handbasket, while letting the rest of the state join the neighboring states that aren't (yet) overpopulated by clueless liberals.

  • skr||

    There is a campaign at nomorehiddentaxes.com that is against prop 25 and for prop 26. Prop 26 appears to be counter to the fees as taxes.

  • ||

    I have been fostering a theory that initiatives shield elected government from the voter.

    In essence states like California and Oregon and were i am from Washington which have strong initiative processes act as a relief valve to shitty government.

    Why vote the bums out when I can give them propositions that at least on paper limit their powers.

  • juris imprudent||

    Actually I'd argue that it is the opposite - instead of shielding the public from the legislature, the legislature is shielded from the public. Initiatives diminish accountability of the elected representatives. Most of the 'structural' problem in CA fiscal affairs is a direct result of initiatives. The rest of the problem stems from the Dems sucking up to the public employee unions.

  • Johnnybegood||

    I disagree. I think propositions actually protect the legislature from the public.

    Hint: reread what Joshua wrote

  • juris imprudent||

    You know, re-reading that I'm not sure what he is arguing.

    Suffice to say, that initiatives in California are as responsible for the state of affairs as the morons we elect. Hmm, there does appear to be a theme emerging there.

  • ||

    You know, re-reading that I'm not sure what he is arguing.

    I take full credit for my crappy writing.

    But yeah I meant to say what you said.

  • ||

    As I read this...

    The intense partisanship of both parties and the sorting of Californians into like-minded communities will make it extraordinarily difficult to produce more competitive legislative districts.

    ...I thought to myself "proportional representation."

    So I was pleasantly surprised to see...

    Replace it with a system of multi-member districts that represent the distinct regions of California and elect at least some of those members proportionally, so that everyone has representation and so that the parties compete everywhere.

    ...though I still wonder why you'd do it with multi-member districts. Far better to simple have one multi-member district called the State of California and elect all Assembly seats proportionally.

    Leave the Senate as it is (though it could do with a little less gerrymandering). The more different barriers laws must pass, the better.

    Oh, and while they're at it, all US House seats should be elected by statewide proportional representation too.

  • cynical||

    Nah, just replace elections with allotment of seats if you want a better system.

    It's more representative, since you have a chance of getting people who aren't political operatives by nature, people who have day jobs rather than living on the campaign trail.

    It's more honest, since they're not beholden to anyone for their office except Lady Luck.

    It's hard to imagine it would make legislation dumber, especially in California.

    Plus, you're pretty much guaranteed a single term limit.

  • ||

    When you've got irresponsible voters who don't understand economics making up 50%+ of the electorate, no amount of legislative gimmicks is gonna fix the resulting clusterfuck.

  • Astrid||

    Tim, why do you hate the money fires? California and America need those money fires!

  • qwerty||

    California's problem isn't too much partisanship. It's too many Democrats. If the majority of the electorate are morons, no fixing of the rules is going to help.

  • juris imprudent||

    A couple of years back this great state, via initiative, outlawed the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

    It is still perfectly okay to kill and butcher that horse - as long as the meat ends up in dog food.

    I don't think the Democratic Party, even in California has ever had that as a platform plank. As much as I like to fault the Dems here - even that wasn't their fault.

  • Gabriel||

    " the same unions that are the main backers of Prop. 25"

    this struck me as the most telling sentence in the article. i'm a pretty educated person and i follow politics more closely than usual but when i read about the initiatives in the voter guide the pro/con/rebuttal part is obvious disingenuous pandering and the actual text is opaque chloroform. in practice the only way i know to make a decision on the initiatives is to vote against whatever the public sector unions are supporting.

  • ||

    The ipse dixit in the last paragraph just doesn't hold water. The supermajority requirement has been there the whole time that California was digging itself into this hot mess, and it obviously didn't help one tiny little bit. The supermajority requirment just empowered a bunch of dead-ender wingnuts who insisted on pairing every tax increase with batsh!t-crazy spending boondoggles.

    Dismissing a sound policy reform because it looks like it is backed by "the wrong kind of people" is exactly the kind of shallow, superficial, stupid, facile-logical-shortcut type of reasoning that keeps Libertarians marginalized. Flat tax? Legal weed? Decriminalize sex work? Isn't that what those [sneer] Libertaaarians want [smirk, snigger]? Hahaha! They're just too silly, so why even bother with an honest debate on the merits?!

  • ||

    "Dismissing a sound policy reform because it looks like it is backed by "the wrong kind of people"...

    I think what a lot of people don't realize about California's overspending problem is that Ronald Reagan was a rotten president.

    You see, Prop 13, super-majority requirements, etc. might look like a cap on taxes and spending, but Ronald Reagan was a rotten president.

    Now some people might point out that less taxes means more consumer spending, and anything that discourages economic activity and investment like taxes do is probably going to discourage economic activity and investment...

    ...but less government can't be the solution to everything because Ronald Reagan was a crummy president.

    Seriously, anybody who thinks our legislature is the solution to our problems, is either a disgusting public union worker or an idiot.

  • ||

    While far from perfect, Ronald Reagan gave us so many priceless lines.

    "The scariest words in the English language are 'I am from the government and I am here to help'"

  • ||

    No way. That is in no way as scary as "God told me to skin you alive." This is just more evidence that Reagan was a rotten President.

  • ||

    I have always wondered why the Legislature, instead of dancing the late budget dance (a form of political theatre, imho) nearly every year, can't just pass a budget that includes all the things they agree upon, and which MUST pass to keep the State government's essential services operating, well in advance of the statutory budget deadline. Then, with an "official" budget out of the way, the two parties can wrestle with each other over an AMENDED budget that includes as many additional things as they can pass BEFORE the budget deadline. After the deadline, whatever isn't in the budget has to wait until the next cycle.

    This way, the State would technically ALWAYS have an on-time (EARLY!) budget, yet the partisans and pork-addicts would still have a chance to slide their pet projects on board, before the budget train leaves the station.

    The entire budget shouldn't be held up because the majority wants to make the minority appear as evil obstructionists and to whip the public into a frenzy of outrage. And the minority should only risk the ire of the voters over the things they truly want to keep out of the budget. Passing a "fallback budget" at the outset would honor the intention of the supermajority requirement, by ensuring that the large portion of the budget that enjoys overwhelming support gets early approval, but still allowing partisan members time and opportunity to generate supermajority support for other, more contentious items and programs.

  • ||

    Straight-majority advocates have a theory

    You would think in a state which advanced gay marriage so aggressively that this kind of advocacy would no longer be around.

  • skr||

    while i get he pun, umm prop 8.

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