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Opinion: Another shot taken at the two-thirds rule

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

In case there was any doubt, we on the Times editorial board today made clear our support for doing away with the supermajority law -- the Depression-era requirement in the state Constitution that budgets can be passed only with a two-thirds vote of members of the Assembly and the state Senate.

We’re not alone: in addition to the one Democratic and one Republican measure moving through the Legislature to amend the Constitution, proponents of an initiative have just sent their measure to the attorney general for title and summary. The AG’s office has 60 days to do its work, then sends the initiative to the secretary of state, who gives the proponents a schedule for circulating petitions. Then, you know the rest -- look for signature-gatherers outside Ralphs and Home Depot.

The California Budget Efficiency Act would retain a supermajority requirement for budgets and taxes but would lower it from the current two-thirds to 55%. As a tactical matter, that would be enough for Democrats to pass budgets as the Legislature currently is constituted.

In the Assembly, for example, where there are 80 members, someone needs to cobble together 54 votes to meet the current two-thirds requirement; Democrats have only 51 unless they can find at least three Republican defectors. With a 55% rule, they would need only 44 votes. In the 40-member Senate, two-thirds works out to 27; Democrats currently have only 24. With a 55% requirement, they would need only 22.

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Plus, of course, the governor. Any ‘majority’ of less than two-thirds needs him, because if he vetoes the budget bill, you’d once again have to muster two-thirds in order to override.

So why 55%? It may be more palatable to voters unhappy with the unattainable two-thirds but who still seek the comfort of more than just a majority vote, especially for raising taxes. In 2000, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have eliminated the two-thirds requirement for passing local school bonds, but later that same year they approved a lower 55% requirement (and we’ve been passing school bonds like crazy ever since).

If it works, it works. And for Democrats in the Legislature, at least in their numbers today, it would work. But even the smaller supermajority requirement is not as elegant, or as commonsensical, as the simple-majority needed for pretty much anything else in this world.

As noted in the editorial, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) has her own approach: simple majority to pass the budget on time, two-thirds if the Legislature is late. And Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) is proposing simple majority for a general fund budget of up to 5% higher than the previous year’s, but two-thirds for more than that.

You could see all three on your next state ballot -- which, by the way, normally wouldn’t be coming your way until June 2010. But this year’s budget emergency will probably result in a special election this June, or perhaps as early as March.


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