The Coming Initiative Wars Over Budget Reform

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Legislature leaders came together on a budget deal over the weekend, but reportedly few major reforms in the budget process will be part of the deal.

Get ready for the coming initiative wars over budget reform. I believe frustrated political interests as well as members of the legislature will ask the people to reform the way the system works on the 2010 ballot.

Even if a 2009 special election is called to put forth some constitutional changes created by the legislature and included in the budget deal, big changes on the budget front will probably find their way onto the 2010 ballot by initiative.

Senate President Pro Tem to be Darrell Steinberg has already said he will not go through this type of stalled budget mess again, indicating an initiative is on the horizon to lower the two-thirds vote to pass the budget. Whether there will be included in a budget reform measure, or in a separate measure, a proposal to lower the two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes is also a possibility.

Tax structural reform may also find its way to the ballot. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass is prepared to call together a commission on structural tax reform. If the commission’s proposed reforms fail in the legislature, interests could easily put them on the ballot via initiative.

Since there is such a deep divide in the legislature, a two-thirds vote to place a constitutional reform on the ballot seems unlikely meaning the initiative process will be the route of least resistance for any reformer.

And it won’t just be those concerned with raising revenue or spending that are eyeing the ballot.

Republicans arguing for a hard spending cap have an initiative in waiting. Fashioned by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and then Senator (now Congressman) John Campbell, the spending cap was being prepared for the 2006 ballot when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger intervened by calling a special election and supported a different spending cap measure, Proposition 76, which was defeated.

Supporters of Jarvis-Campbell always thought they had a superior measure, which had been polished over time and is ready to go.

In addition, the governor has a few ideas on dealing with budget issues such as a rainy day fund and the power of the governor to make mid-year cuts. If the reforms offered in the weekend budget compromise don’t go far enough to the governor’s liking, he certainly has the ability to qualify initiatives.

Then there are the reform groups, such as California Forward, which will make some budget reform proposals. The group has made it clear that they will take their proposals to the ballot if necessary.

On top of all that, 2010 is an election year for governor. There are a number of potential gubernatorial candidates who have the ability to finance initiatives to improve the governance landscape prior to them taking office. Doesn’t it make sense to clear up the mess early and make governing a bit easier once elected?

In 1990, then Attorney General John Van de Kamp supported three initiatives as he was running for governor. It didn’t work out so well for Van de Kamp as he lost in the primary to Dianne Feinstein and the measures he supported on crime, the environment, and governmental reform were also defeated. However, this situation is different. While Van de Kamp supported the measures as a kind of platform for his run for governor, I believe a gubernatorial candidate this time would support initiatives only partly as a platform but more as an effort to avoid headaches after being elected. And, unlike Van de Kamp, at least a couple of possible gubernatorial candidates have the ability to fund both an initiative effort and a run for governor.

2010 looks like a banner year for initiative political consultants.

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