Gridlocked Government


California is now governed by gridlock. Its laws are shaped by a minority, under a series of rigid rules put into place over nearly a decade. The prospect for quick change in the rules or for government that can lay a solid foundation for the state’s future is not good.

For now, the gridlock is most frustrating for Democrats, who dominate both chambers of the Legislature and hold all but one statewide elective office--all but the big one, the governor’s office. But, because of the rules of the game, they have about as much effect on public policy as the average scrub jay. Republicans would be just as frustrated if they had similar majorities.

Gridlock comes primarily from the need for twothirds of the votes in either chamber to overrule a routine veto of legislation by the governor or a line-item veto of anything that he finds offensive in the state budget.


In 1978, Proposition 13 put a ceiling on property taxes. But it also extended minority rule by requiring a two-thirds vote in both the state Senate and the Assembly to raise taxes. Local governments had even less freedom; they could raise taxes only if two-thirds of their voters said yes. In 1979, Proposition 4 made it next to impossible to spend money even if taxes could be increased. Government at any level could increase spending each year only by the amount by which the consumer price index had risen.

Both of these propositions were desperation measures, approved when inflation seemed out of control and government was virtually the only place that Californians could control costs. Voters jumped at the chance. Since then most politicians have shied away from even a mention of relaxing the limits on taxes and spending enough to make room for investments in roads, libraries, health care, public education and other public services.

Inflation has subsided, but the restrictions remain, with long-range effects that voters could not have foreseen at the time. In practice the restrictions take policy out of the hands of any majority of voters by making it easy for a minority to block either new programs or changes in old programs. They also have shifted money, and therefore the power to set policy, away from local government to Sacramento. How much money a local school district will have in any given year is thus a decision that is made not in the district but, in the end, by a minority in Sacramento.

To complete the picture of gridlock, you add to these constitutional limits the growing influence of campaign contributions on Sacramento decisions--in the cases in which legislators still have the freedom to make decisions.

Working free is more complicated than breaking up gridlock that just involves automobiles, where all that it takes is the price of a pair of white gloves and a whistle.

Proposition 4, the Gann spending limit, should be abolished. At a minimum, it must be modified. The elements of Proposition 13 that deal with general taxes should be abolished, and those that deal with property taxes should be modified to put all Californians on the same footing. And the hold that big campaign contributors have on state politicians must be broken by reforms that will limit spending without violating a candidate’s First Amendment rights.


These are tall orders, made to seem taller by the unsteady nerves of most political leaders who act as though Proposition 13 was approved yesterday and as though government had all the money it needed to cope with California’s growth.

California has no choice. It cannot postpone its date with the future. And it cannot arrive in any kind of style while its government is gridlocked.