The two-thirds requirement to pass legislation is grinding the state’s government–and the economy–to a halt.
Last month Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton dished out some harsh criticism for California Governor Jerry Brown for his challenge to the state Legislature to “man up” and pass his proposed spending cuts. In addition to his push for a ballot initiative in November to temporarily raise state sales taxes and income taxes on those Californians earning more than $250,000 per year, the governor said it will also be necessary to slash spending due to the larger than expected projected budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. At the time, the expected shortfall was just north of $9 billion.
Due to decreased revenues, the state is facing a nearly $16 billion budget shortfall. Brown has proposed cuts to programs in the state that benefit the poor such as Medi-Cal and aid to the elderly and disabled, welfare, and child care programs. He also proposes cuts to college grants and other forms of state sponsored financial aid. These are all proposals that will strike at the neediest Californians who can least afford to lose those benefits. And now he is practically begging California voters to raise taxes. Otherwise the cuts will have to go even deeper, he says, including massive cuts to education across the board.
Governor Brown should be given credit for deftly dealing last year with a $25 billion shortfall, having to cut long and deep to do it. But he also had the benefit of federal stimulus money to help close the gap. This time around, though, there are no federal stimulus funds to rely on, and California is still facing a revenue shortage and a deep budget deficit. The only way close that gap is to raise tax revenue or cut further; probably both, unfortunately.
Skelton’s main critique is that the governor is resorting to boorish behavior reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “girlie men” taunt, also in reference to the state legislature; that Governor Brown’s “man up” comment amounts to childish taunts that will only create more friction with lawmakers instead of “manning up” himself and using “the governor’s power to push taxes through the Legislature.” Skelton accused Brown of “hiding behind the voters.”
Skelton’s problem is that he makes the mistake of assuming that Republicans in the Legislature are reasonable people. See, here’s the thing: In the California Assembly and Senate, state law mandates a 2/3 majority vote in both chambers in order to pass any measure having anything even tangentially to do with the budget. In other words, much like the United States Senate, the minority rules. Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers—a 52-28 advantage in the Assembly (Nathan Fletcher, the San Diego mayoral candidate, switched his affiliation to Independent, but still presumably caucuses with the Republicans), and a 25-15 advantage in the Senate.
Although Brown might be able to get his tax proposals through the Assembly—assuming he brings all 52 Democrats, which is exactly a 2/3 majority—he is still one vote short in the Senate. The fact is that in the face of intractable Republican intransigence, Brown is powerless to do what is necessary to raise revenues through legislation. He is thus left with no choice. He must take his plea directly to the voters.
A long time ago, California decided that it simply did not trust its legislators. “Legislation by initiative” became the rule, rather than the exception. And because we need 2/3 majority vote in each chamber of the Legislature, the only way to approve any revenue increases is to go directly to the voters. And it all started with Prop 13, the popular measure that locked in property tax valuation rates at the date of purchase rather than the current assessed value, and made property tax increases virtually impossible. It was also the measure that made it necessary to clear a 2/3 majority in both chambers to raise taxes.
What it has created is dysfunctional government. What we now have is a government where the minority rules, not the majority. The minority may not set the agenda, but as long as they can maintain 1/3 of the Legislature, they can certainly control it. It’s a power that they have wielded with more and more fervor the more successful they’ve been.
Want proof? How about the bill (the “tax hike” deal negotiated by Nathan Fletcher, Jerry Brown, and Legislative Democrats) that closed a tax loophole that gave favorable tax rates to out-of-state businesses and leveled the playing field for California businesses? It was a deal that in-state business owners begged for, and Democrats (and Fletcher, to his credit) did their best to oblige. It was a deal that would have generated $1.1 billion in revenues while lowering personal income taxes for most Californians and provided incentives for small California businesses. It’s a measure that makes perfect sense, is perfectly logical, benefits California businesses, creates a more hospitable climate for local businesses to work under, and yet due to the 2/3 majority required to pass any tax related measures, it failed in the State Senate.
I wish I could say I was shocked, but this is, after all, a Republican axiom that says any increase in taxes on anyone, for any reason, at any time, is an absolute no-no. Is it any wonder nothing ever gets done in the California Legislature?
The other problem with “legislation by initiative?” Californians vote for new programs but don’t provide adequate means to pay for them. Meanwhile, the spending becomes codified into law, and legislators are powerless to do anything about it since they can’t raise taxes. In turn that leaves programs such as MediCal, mental health programs, food stamps, and education vulnerable since they’re the only things left to make spending cuts to.
What we’re left with is a mess. And it’s a mess because the minority has the ability to control what happens in the Legislature. Which is ridiculous. That’s not how a representative democracy is supposed to work.
The state’s budget is being slashed to the bare bones, and yet it’s not enough for legislative Republicans. California’s education system—once the shining example for all America—is now anchored at the bottom of Lake Tahoe ranking 47th in the country, and it’s only going to get worse. Teachers are being laid off; classrooms are becoming so full they’re about to burst their seams. Music and the arts are things of the past. The cost of a public college education is beginning to rival that of some of the best private schools in the country—that is if the UC and CSU systems can still accommodate the demand, which they can’t.
California businesses are paying higher tax rates than their out-of-state rivals operating in California. That’s not good for the state, and yet it’s a problem that cannot be overcome in Sacramento.
At what point do we say that we’ve cut and we’ve cut and we’ve cut, and any further cuts are going to do real harm to real people? When can we say it’s time to look at the revenue side? At what point do we bring the way the California government functions into the 21st century?
George Skelton is a highly respected columnist on state government for the LA Times, but he’s wrong on this one: Governor Jerry Brown is powerless to fix this. The minority rules in the California Legislature, and that minority is more interested in advancing a dogma than they are in solving real problems. When that happens, the government becomes incapable of governing.