Two-thirds vote requirement for budget gives GOP rare leverage
August 4, 2007
SACRAMENTO (AP) ” Environmental requirements in San Bernardino County. Transportation projects approved by voters last fall.
Such mundane matters have little to do with California’s annual budget, but they are among the chief reasons the spending plan for the current fiscal year is almost seven weeks overdue.
The reason: California’s requirement that the budget pass with a two-thirds vote in each house. It is one of only three states to have the requirement, which gives minority Republicans a rare chance to exert influence.
“Quite frankly, there are a few places to which we can leverage those kind of policy issues, and this is one of them,” said Sen. George Runner of Lancaster, the Senate’s Republican Caucus chairman.
All but one of the 15 Senate Republicans voted against the state’s $145 billion spending plan Wednesday, the second time the budget has failed to win enough support in that house. That leaves Democrats in the 40-member chamber one vote short of the two-thirds they need.
The budget passed the Assembly July 20 when eight Republicans joined Democrats to meet the super majority requirement. Republicans in the Senate appear content to hold out indefinitely for more concessions.
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The impasse has led some lawmakers and many political observers outside government wondering whether the state’s budget process must be overhauled. Of the last 20 state budgets, just seven were approved before the July 1 start of each new fiscal year.
California voters adopted the two-thirds majority requirement in 1933 during the Great Depression, when finances were precarious and voters worried about government spending and higher taxes.
At the time, the requirement applied only to budgets that were more than 5 percent higher than the previous year. In 1962, voters extended the rule to all budgets. Proposition 13 in 1978 required two-thirds majorities for tax increases, as well.
In 2004, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have lowered the majority to pass the budget and tax increases to 55 percent.
“The two-thirds majority really holds the budget process hostage,” said Chris Carson, government director for the League of Women Voters, which backed the 2004 initiative. “If they pass a budget that the voters don’t like, then they can hold them accountable. This is a representative democracy.”
Requiring a narrower majority, however, is hardly a panacea, said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
Only Arkansas and Rhode Island require a similar super majority for budget approval, and both passed their budgets on time this year. Meanwhile, budgets were delayed in several states that require just simple majority votes.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Senate leader Don Perata of Oakland are among those promising to consider changes in California’s budget process this fall, after the current spending plan is approved.
“I think everyone realizes the current system isn’t working,” Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, said in a telephone interview Friday.
Democrat-controlled committees are free to adopt their priorities while ignoring those put forward by Republicans. When the plan is presented to the Assembly or the Senate, the process grinds to a halt when the budget needs at least some Republican votes to reach the two-thirds threshold.
“We’ve made our positions known since January, but they’re never taken seriously until we are where we are right now,” Ackerman said.
He thinks requiring a two-thirds majority would be useful throughout the budget process, including with the conference committee that drafts the final budget, “as a check-and-balance so parties can’t go too wild.”
Schwarzenegger supported the budget approved by the Assembly and has placed part of the blame for the stalemate on the way California draws its legislative districts. In general, the districts are safe for the party currently holding the seat and tend to produce lawmakers who are very conservative or very liberal. Moderates have all but disappeared from the Capitol, making compromise more elusive.
Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, has been the most vocal this year in rallying conservatives to support the Republicans’ cause.
Yet McClintock favors shifting to a simple majority vote so the party in power bears total responsibility for the budget. He would retain the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases and install stiffer requirements that the state’s revenue and spending balance in each budget.
This year, the Senate’s Republicans say they want additional spending cuts to eliminate the budget’s $700 million deficit. Schwarzenegger has said he will use his veto power to balance the budget, but that hasn’t been enough to satisfy members of his own party.
On Thursday, a somewhat exasperated governor told reporters, “I don’t really know now what it takes to close it.”
Part of his frustration can be traced to the list of issues Republicans want to address, concerns that in many cases have little if anything to do with the budgeting process. They’re holding out to win concessions because the budget process gives them the only real leverage they have all year against the Democratic majority.
Senate Republicans say they want changes to budget-related bills they claim would unfairly eliminate railroads from state funding, send too much money to Los Angeles and decide how a transportation bond approved last year by voters is spent.
They also are demanding protections for local governments that are being threatened by Attorney General Jerry Brown. The former Democratic governor is demanding that cities and counties account for the negative effects their housing, commercial and road projects might have on global climate change. Republicans fear lawsuits by Brown could bring development to a halt.
Schwarzenegger said he shares his fellow Republicans’ concerns but on Thursday criticized senators for using such peripheral interests to stall the budget.
“We have to make some adjustments there. But let me be very clear; I do not support holding up a state budget because of non-budget issues,” Schwarzenegger said.
The governor’s assertion “is just way off mark,” said Runner, the Republican senator. “Billions of dollars in this year’s budget and in future budgets deal with the issue of investment in infrastructure. That goes to the core of spending those dollars, so it is directly related to the budget.”
The transportation bond money is included in a section of the overall budget that is outside the $103 billion general fund, which pays for ongoing state operations. Runner also defended Republicans’ fight against the attorney general, saying Brown’s attack on local governments has the potential to delay public works projects and thus put public safety at risk.
“We think that’s wrong,” Runner said.