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Saturday, February 21, 2009

It is Time To End the Two-Thirds Rule

In theory the requirement in California to obtain the consent of two-thirds of the legislature to vote for a budget sounds like an idea that would promote consensus building and bipartisanship. I wish I could say that was in the intent, but it was more mundane. The intent was to prevent tax increases from being enacted. For many years it has accomplished exactly that; however as time has gone on, it has exacted a higher and higher price. It has prevented the type of wholesale structural changes that we need for reform to take place.

It has led to gridlock, forcing budget after budget to be adopted late. It has led to unnecessary delay, wasted time, and worse yet, in a crisis outright paralysis.

An early February Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that for the first time, a majority of Californians supported altering the two-thirds vote requirement to require a 55% vote. That was before our latest drama with the budget.

For years Democrats have wanted to take it on. Now for the first time they are serious about doing so. The only question is how soon they do it and whether or not there is finally the political will for it to succeed.

At the core, were Republicans who seemingly were willing to plunge California into fiscal crisis rather than vote for a tax increase that their own leadership said they had no choice but to support because it was the only way to balance the budget. At which point, at least in the Senate, they got rid of their leadership and elected a more intractable leader.

It was a process that saw one Senator exact a high price in order to finally secure his, the 27th vote in the Senate, and secure the passage of the budget. The price is a constitutional amendment to have an open primary.

Without the two-thirds vote requirement it is clear that the open primary issue would have never come forward. Speaker Karen Bass at the post-budget vote press conference early Thursday morning expressed regret that it came forward in the manner that it did without the kind of public process she would have preferred.
“I will tell you that none of us felt very comfortable with putting a bill forward like the open primary because it was never heard by a committee, there was no public process, that's not the way we like to do business. But the fact of the matter is that just represents one of the many many many difficult choices that we made over these last few weeks.”
She continued:
“If we didn't have the two-thirds requirement to pass the budget tonight's open primary issue would not have even been a concern. We would have passed a budget a long time ago. But you very well know that we needed one more Republican vote in order to pass this budget. And the requirement for that vote was to pass this bill.”
Indeed both Speaker Bass as well as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg seem ready to lead the effort to repeal the two-thirds vote requirement.

As Pro Tem Steinberg said:
“The answer in my view is to take this two-thirds supermajority requirement. We are one of three states in the country that allows a small minority of members to hold up the progress.... It doesn't really work for California; it worked this time barely because of the magnitude of the crisis... We need to take the question this two-thirds supermajority to the ballot. I feel even stronger now than I did when I started on December 1.”
Speaker Karen Bass was also ready for the two-thirds requirement to go.
“One of the things I want to be voting on, if not in 09, then 2010, and that's the removal of the 2/3rds vote requirement so that California can be like 47 other states in the union. So the next time when we have a deficit like this we won't go months and months for negotiations.”
The big problem is that two-thirds vote requirement does not produce consensus building, but rather political blackmail, horse trading, quid pro quo, and it often requires the passage of pork in order to secure votes.

To the hold outs get the spoils. Senator Lou Correa is getting an extra $140 million in property tax revenue for Orange County over the next two years and $50 million after that. You see, Orange County happens to have the second lowest per capita property tax revenue in the state. You know who has the lowest? YOLO COUNTY.

However Yolo County is not getting that help, despite a $22 million deficit for 2009-10 in a budget of $66 million. Why is Yolo County not getting that help? Because Senator Lois Wolk and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada did not blackmail the Democratic leadership and holdout for pork or other promises.

Senator Correa was not alone. Senator Ashburn, one of three Republican votes got a $10,000 tax credit to people who buy new homes.

And of course it is well known about all the things that Senator Maldonado got in exchange for his vote. There is nothing new about this though.

There is concern that the deal cut with Senator Maldonado to enable the budget to be passed sets a bad precedent. That was downplayed to a large degree. Speaker Bass argued that these types of things always happen, although it is more likely to be a specific project or even policy.
“Every year the budget is debated and frankly at the end of every session there's last minute horse trading. Until we get rid of the two-thirds vote requirement we will be doing the same thing.”
Senator Steinberg:
“I don't like it and it was an unpleasant part of the process, but I'll tell you what the answer is. The answer in my view is to take this two-thirds supermajority requirement.”
That movement is already underfoot.

The Courage Campaign has already launched a campaign to end the two-thids vote.
"The rule requiring a 2/3rds vote of the legislature to pass a budget allowed a small cabal of extremist Republicans led by Senator Abel Maldonado to hold the state hostage to their demands, as they have done year after year. As Rachel Maddow explained on her show, this is part of a pattern of Republican obstruction across America."
They are not alone. Word is the Democrats in the legislature have already hired consultants to spearhead the initiative drive.

The League of California Cities recently put out a publication where the focus was on the two-thirds vote requirements. The side in favor of retaining the two-thirds requirement is represented by Assemblyman Roger Niello. At least give him credit, he was one of the three in the Assembly to vote for the bill.

John Laird, an Assemblymember and former League of California Cities board member writes for the opposing side.

One of the problems hanging over the process is the fact that Republicans who vote for these budgets put themselves in electoral jeopardy:
"After a 2001 budget in which four Assembly Republicans joined all Democrats in approving a budget, for various reasons not one of those Republican legislators returned after the next election. That experience hangs over every budget."
Indeed this time we saw a conservative blogger put Republicans heads on the pike, threats from Rush Limbaugh, and the very real possibility of recall for Assemblyman Anthony Adams.

The Redlands Daily Facts reports:
Sen. Robert Dutton on Friday asked state Assemblyman Anthony Adams to resign as chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Party after Adams voted in favor of nearly $13 million in temporary tax hikes.


"Anthony Adams has called Senate Republicans `recalcitrant' because they won't support a budget proposal that raises taxes on hard-working California families by more than $13 billion," Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said in a prepared statement Friday. "It's clear that Assemblyman Adams doesn't represent the core values of the Republican Party and I am calling on him to immediately resign as chair of the San Bernardino Republican Party."
As the Sacramento Bee reported in the Capitol Alerts, he knows this is probably the end of his political career :
Republican Assemblyman Anthony Adams cast his "aye" budget vote at dawn today with full knowledge that, as he has said, "this will probably be the end of a political career for me."


"I think it's important that people know that my caucus is supportive -- that I'm not making any decision lightly," Adams said on his way into a GOP member's office Wednesday. "I'm also not making a decision outside the realm of our caucus. I'm not out there by myself or trying to engage in something that does not have the support of my caucus."
The Bee article continues:
A recall effort against him is already afoot.

The 38-year old lawmaker has been in anti-tax advocates' crosshairs ever since a Sacramento Bee story on Jan. 22 and an appearance later that day on the John and Ken radio show in Southern California. The shock jocks were blasting Republicans, including Adams, for telling The Bee that taxes were on the table in budget talks.

"I dare with the full knowledge that this will probably be the end of a political career for me," Adams told the radio duo. "But the fact of the matter is California is in a place where they need people who are willing to sacrifice their own personal agenda for what's right."
The radio hosts responded by posting an image of Adams' decapitated head on a stick on their Web site.
Truth be told, Anthony Adams is much closer to a hero in the budget battle than Abel Maldonado ever was. He never tried to hijack the process or hold the state for ransom. Instead, he did what he believed he needed to do to protect the state of California and exercise his constitutional duties as an elected official. For that he is probably looking at the end of his political career.

This weekend it is reported that at the Republican's state convention that the six Republican lawmakers will face the possibility of censure by their own political party.

Who would want to subject themselves to that? Who will do so in the future the next time a budget fight comes down and the legislators have to grapple with unpleasant choices? This is not done. There is a possibility that the May revise will be bring even worse news.

The movement is already afoot to repeal the two-thirds vote requirement. On February 18k, 2009, a ballot initiative was already circulating with the California Secretary of State's webpage to do exactly that.

In fact there are two of them.

The language of the first:
"STATE BUDGET. REPEAL OF TWO-THIRDS LEGISLATIVE VOTE REQUIREMENT. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. Lowers the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the state budget, and spending bills related to the budget, from sixty-seven percent (two-thirds) to fifty five percent. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Unknown changes in the content of the annual state budget. Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future Legislatures. (08-0022.)"
The second one would retain the two-thirds vote requirement for raising property taxes but remove it for the budget.
STATE BUDGET. TAXES. REPEAL OF TWO-THIRDS LEGISLATIVE VOTE REQUIREMENT. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. Lowers the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the state budget, spending bills related to the budget, and budget-related tax increases, from sixty-seven percent (two-thirds) to fifty-five percent. Retains sixty-seven percent (two-thirds) vote requirement for property tax increases. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Unknown state fiscal impacts from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases related to the budget. In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and/or state tax revenues could increase. Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future Legislatures. (08-0023.)
As this process shows us quite clearly, we need to change the system for so many ways. First, in an emergency we get a watered down budget that often does not fix the problems.

Second, it leads to delay. Had we passed this back in September of last year, the tax measures could have gone on the November ballot rather than this year's May ballot, and the state could have saved the multimillion dollar cost of a special election. Moreover, the delay cost the state billions of dollars, it costs people jobs, it delayed infrastructure projects that will cost money as well.

Third, it leads to political blackmail. It encouraged holdouts to extort prices for their votes. It gave them perks and rewards for holdout and but the people in districts where the legislators did not hold out often need the help just as badly. The process is inherently unfair.

Fourth, it leads to death threats to politicians, usually Republicans, whose career are now threatened for doing the responsible thing.

And just for good measure, Assemblyman Laird mentions another drawback to the two-thirds process.
"As I write this, the budget is almost two months late. The Democratic legislative committees and the governor have long since proposed balanced budgets with some new taxes, none of which include borrowing.

If by the time you read this, there is borrowing in the budget, it is not what the governor or a majority of the Legislature wanted. It will be the two-thirds requirement that will have leveraged it in so the budget process can conclude. To add insult to injury, often the very interests that leverage borrowing into the budget won’t actually vote for the budget — leaving it to the rest of us to approve a budget that includes things we find distasteful.

It’s said the two-thirds requirement protects fiscal responsibility. I think the opposite is true. We got where we are now with the two-thirds requirement. This is no way to run the government of the eighth largest economy in the world. This needs to be changed. There’s a reason 47 other states do not do this — and that their budgets are adopted on time."
Laird is exactly correct. We do not have fiscal responsibility. We did not pass a responsible budget in September of 2008 and we did not pass one now. We have more borrowing, added pork, we have not fixed the state's structural problems, we have special measures on the ballot, etc. Nothing even resembling fiscal responsibility occurred due to this process.

There is always talk of ending the two-thirds requirement, this time, it appears that there just might be the political will to do it.

---David M. Greenwald reporting