There are two things you already know for certain about California in 2009: the state will have terrible budget problems. And the state’s requirements of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes or pass a budget will face a serious challenge.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the legislative side: a Democratic plan, with backing from Schwarzenegger, to raise taxes to reduce the budget deficit in a complicated way that, Democratic lawyers believe, does not require a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
Now comes the initiative side of the attack on two-thirds. A Democratic law firm filed two versions of an initiative shortly before Christmas with the California attorney general’s office. As Democratic leaders have promised, the initiative effectively would eliminate California’s requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. For political purposes, however, the two-thirds requirement would remain in the constitution–new language would merely exempt all appropriations from the two-thirds requirement for approving appropriations. Look for advocates of the initiative to say, over and over, that it doesn’t remove the two-thirds requirement from the constitution. Because technically, it doesn’t.
One of the two versions of the initiative also would eliminate the two-thirds requirement for raising all taxes (with an exception for property taxes that offers a bit of a nod to Prop 13). Again, this is political. Proponents are cutting the heart out of Prop 13, but they’ll be able to say, "What are you talking about? We don’t touch property taxes!" It’s also possible that by filing two versions, backers are telegraphing a political strategy: they could agree not to take on the two-thirds requirement as it applies to taxes — in return for support for eliminating the two-thirds requirement on the budget.
Neither version of the initiative returns California to the requirement of a simple majority for taxes and budgeting.
Instead, there would be a super-majority — 55 percent. I’m sure that polls better than a simple majority, but it’s still weird policy and perhaps not smart politics. Initiative proponents would be better off making the case for a clean majority. Fifty-five percent won’t slow down the opposition to the proposal, and it might look to some voters like a trick.
A majority vote on taxes and the budget is the direction we ought to go. It would end some of the gridlock and, more important, restore accountability to our system. Under our current two-thirds system, the governing party always can blame the minority for holding things up. The responsibility for the budget is thus unclear. In a majority vote system, voters will know who to blame if the budget goes wrong.
One point on timing of initiatives: an early special election — say in June 2009 — is almost certainly too early to qualify. (Though I’m hearing that signature gatherers have been engaged). But if the special election waits until the fall –as many initiative sponsors would prefer — an initiative to end two-thirds could dominate the political debate.