Go slow on majority-vote budget effort
October 1, 2007
One good thing about the California state constitution is that legislators need a two-thirds vote to put possible amendments onto the ballot.
This means that if a move now afoot to change the vote needed to pass a state budget from two-thirds to 55 percent or a simple majority makes it onto any of next year’s three statewide ballots, it will have to be via a much more difficult and uncertain initiative petition campaign, not a legislative vote. That’s because it would be suicidal for Republicans who make up just over one-third of the Legislature to give up their only avenue to real clout.
And that’s a good thing.
In the wake of yet another very late California budget, it was only natural for those who didn’t get paid for two months and those who lost services for a while to cry out for timely budgets on a regular basis. The common argument was that since Arkansas and Rhode Island are the only two other states requiring a two-thirds budget vote, it’s backward for California to stay in that category.
But the bottom line on budgets is that good ones are worth waiting for. Not that the current one is anywhere near perfect. For just one thing, it abandons some services for the homeless, while keeping tax exemptions for wealthy yacht owners that cost the state about as much as the homeless services did. This was wrong; it was a plain and simple bow to some wealthy supporters of Republicans whose votes were needed to pass any budget at all.
Yet, if not for minority Republican demands, the strong likelihood is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not have made many of the cuts he did to the budget as it passed. That would have left the state with even more of a deficit than it now will run.
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This doesn’t mean some corrections aren’t in order. Almost everyone involved agrees some changes will occur. While calling an end to the two-thirds vote a “long shot,” Democrat Don Perata, president of the state Senate, told a reporter the constitutional amendment proposed by some Democrats should be a “starting point” for fixing the entire budget process.
One obvious change should be a ban on campaign donations to anyone involved in writing or voting on the budget as long as it’s in process. That would include the governor and all legislators, with their constant pressing desires for campaign cash then providing a motive for fast budget action.
Another constructive starting point for any talks about changes could be the ideas in a memo sent to Schwarzenegger by Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham of Madera and San Benito counties.
Denham would have both the state Senate and Assembly remain in around-the-clock session starting at the legal budget deadline of June 15 if they haven’t passed a budget by then. He would cut off the pay and per diem expense income of legislators from June 15 until they pass a budget. He would up the size of the joint budget conference committee to give rank-and-file lawmakers whose votes often hold up budgets more of a voice in key decisions. And he would start that joint committee of senators and Assembly members working days after the governor submits the first draft of his budget proposal each January.
Denham also would like automatic continuations of the immediate past budget when a new one isn’t passed by July 1.
These ideas are far from perfect, of course. Cutting legislators’ pay and not the governor’s is unfair, since the governor is at least as involved in negotiations as any lawmaker. The idea of continuing spending at previous levels when budgets are late sounds fine and might eliminate some inconvenience and pain, but it also would eliminate much of the pressure pushing minority lawmakers toward action when they delay a budget. Without such pressure, they could essentially delay forever passing new budgets, leaving everything unchanged for years at a time if they wished.
Meanwhile, one way to eliminate some pressure at budget time would be a switch to a pay-as-you-go system for public works, rather than constantly issuing bonds, which adds billions of dollars in interest to each year’s budget without any possible cuts.
The bottom line: Everyone involved in the process knows that without a two-thirds vote requirement, the state would be far deeper in debt than it already is. For minority Republicans now can act as a restraint on the free-spending tendencies of majority Democrats, who could spend as much as they pleased on whatever they wanted if all they needed was a majority vote.