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.