The Trouble With Prop 25

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)






I’m the author of a new book that argues that California
needs to get rid of all the two-thirds supermajority requirements that clog its
constitution, including the two-thirds requirement for passing a budget. So why
don’t I like Prop 25, which would permit a budget to be passed by majority
vote?

Because California governing system is so broken that it’s
possible to vote for an initiative that advances a good policy and still make
things worse.

Prop 25 is such an initiative. Context matters, and Prop 25
is, unfortunately, out of context. And thus it’s unlikely to make the budget
process any better. In fact, it’s a safe bet that Prop 25, if enacted, would
make the budget process more dysfunctional – and make reforming it more difficult.

Here are five doubts that supporters of majority votes
should have about Prop 25.

1.     It
attacks the wrong supermajority at the wrong time.

In bad economic times, it’s not the two-thirds vote for the
budget that makes it hard for the legislature to pass a budget. It’s the
two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases. This year, Democratic demands
for more revenues to avoid program cuts – and Republicans’ refusal to go along
- were at the heart of the budget dispute.

But Prop 25 leaves the two-thirds supermajority for tax
increases in place. (I know that some opponents of Prop 25 argue otherwise and
there’s a backdoor way to raise taxes in the measure. If  only that were so.)

2. By leaving all but one
supermajority in place, Prop 25 won’t change the budget system.

Remember, California has other budget-related
supermajorities besides the ones that require a two-thirds vote for budgets and
for tax hikes. Other two-thirds supermajorities protect the Prop 98 education
funding guarantee, local government funds, and transportation funds. Even with
Prop 25, more than half of the budget would be set in place and protected by a
supermajority – thus preserving the minority party’s leverage to hold up a
budget. So a vote for Prop 25 is not a vote for majority accountability over
the budget.

3. Prop 25 might make deficits
worse and force the state to do even more borrowing.

To the extent Prop 25 were to have any practical effect, it
would threaten to deepen deficits. Consider this scenario: the removal of the
supermajority on budget bills makes it a little bit easier for Democrats to
support spending that they otherwise couldn’t get Republicans to agree to by
two-thirds vote. But Republicans still block tax increases to pay for the
additional Democratic spending. The result: more deficits, more gimmicks, more
borrowing.

4. Prop 25 seeks to establish
majority accountability for budgets – a worthy goal. But it is not accompanied
by election reforms that permit voters to hold those newly empowered majorities
accountable.

In short, putting the majority in charge of the budget (and
all fiscal matters) is a good idea. But the idea won’t work until California
adopts an election system that permits voters to hold the legislative majority
accountable.

We don’t have such a system now. Our legislative elections
are fixed. No matter who draws the lines, our election system guarantees that
Democrats will be in the majority. We already know the results of next week’s
elections before they even happen.

That’s why getting rid of supermajorities must be paired
with major election reform that makes every vote count and gives voters the
power to kick out the majority party when it doesn’t perform. The best way to
do that is by creating a larger legislature elected in multi-member districts
through elections that rely at least in part on proportional representation.
Under such a system, all voters would be able to vote directly for the party
they want in the legislature.

Without such reforms, an effort to eliminate the budget
supermajority looks more like a partisan power grab by the majority party than
a real effort to bridge majority accountability to the legislature.

5. Prop 25, by being ineffective
(or making things worse), could set back the noble cause of removing two-thirds
supermajority requirements from the constitution and the budget process.

The logic of Prop 25 proponents is that passing the measure
will break the dam, and serve as a first step to repeal once voters see how it
works. The problem with that logic is: that only works if voters see clear
improvements in the budget process as a result of 25.

What’s more likely is that Prop 25 will pass and the budget
process will remain a mess — because of all the supermajorities that remain in
place, all the voter-approved spending and tax formulas that constrain the
legislature, and the partisan nature of the legislature. Voters might well
conclude: "well, we passed Prop 25 and that didn’t make anything better. So
maybe the two-thirds supermajorities aren’t the real problem with the budget
system."

That would be tragic. If you believe that supermajorities
are a big part of the problem (and I do), then pursuing an incremental measure
like Prop 25 is a strategic mistake. All the supermajorities must go, as part
of a comprehensive reform effort that includes reforms not merely to two-thirds
vote but to the election system and the initiative process. You can’t fix a
system as dysfunctional as California’s with one initiative. In fact,
one-initiative-at-a-time reform is the poison, not the cure.

 

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