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State’s Run-Amok Ballot Can Be Traced to Tax Revolt

<i> Leon P. Baradat is a professor of political science at MiraCosta College in Oceanside and a co-director of its Center for International Understanding. In 1980 he served as a consultant on higher education to the California Legislature</i>

In this 10th year of the tax revolt that was launched by the adoption of Proposition 13, the people went to the polls on Tuesday to find themselves confronted with a huge number of bewildering propositions.

Many of these complex measures canceled one another out, Nine of them proposed to add a total of $3.3 billion to the present state debt of $14.8 billion, a 22% increase. We were also asked to address crowded schools and bulging prisons, water crises, vaulting industrial-accident rates, desperate measures to deal with the AIDS epidemic--not to mention an open war among consumer advocates, bankers, trial lawyers and insurance companies.

Indeed, this crop of propositions was so complicated, confusing, contradictory and voluminous that pundits said democracy was running amok and some citizens threatened to vote no on everything--"That’ll show ‘em!”

How did we arrive at such a pass? Could there be a connection between the tax revolt and the number of issues brought to the people for solution? Why don’t our elected officials deal with these difficulties, obviating the necessity of so many propositions appearing on the ballot?

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In fact, the failure of the politicians to deal with many of this state’s most complex problems, the tax revolt and the growing number of ballot propositions are closely related. The default by our politicians stems in part from legislative rules that are archaic and unreasonably restrictive. The rules of the California Legislature require absolute majorities in order to pass a law. Hence, instead of demanding a majority of those present and voting as does Congress, California’s rules require an absolute majority--21 of 40 senators to vote aye and 41 of 80 members of the Assembly to concur. Even worse, any issue requiring a two-thirds majority vote--tax measures and many other matters of importance--demand 27 from the Senate and 54 from the Assembly to vote aye. Consequently, when a legislator does not vote on a bill, that actually contributes to the failure of the measure.

People in this country often support two-thirds-majority rules, believing that they are then protected by the extraordinary margin. Indeed, some misguided sages suggest that if a simple majority is democratic, then a two-thirds majority must be even more so. In reality, there are two serious problems with requirements of a two-thirds majority: They are distinctly undemocratic, since the minority needs only one-third plus one to flout the will of the majority, and the two-thirds rules in our bitterly partisan state Legislature, compounded by the requirement for absolute numbers, makes it almost impossible to pass certain kinds of controversial law.

Many issues either go unaddressed or the voters are confronted with them on the ballot. For example, in 1977 a property-tax reform bill received 56 votes in the Assembly but only 26 votes in the Senate. Hence, although a majority of the Legislature favored the reform bill, it failed because it lacked one vote in one house to achieve the necessary two-thirds margin. Driven by the need for property-tax reform, the voters adopted Proposition 13 the next year.

The passage of Proposition 13 launched an even wider tax revolt and had two principal governmental consequences: Revenues for state expenses were slashed and have not been replenished, even though demand for services has not abated; control over local government was ceded to the state level, because Proposition 13 makes local governments dependent on diminished state revenues.

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In short, Proposition 13 passed because of the inability of the Legislature to adopt tax reform. Yet Proposition 13 also has the effect of transferring ever more issues to an ineffective Legislature, issues that were previously within the local province alone.

Being unable to increase taxes to the level of demand, this year the Legislature and the governor decided to propose a huge increase in the state’s debt (witness all the bond issues on the ballot). At the same time, the voters have found themselves being asked to decide such matters as regulation of the insurance industry, limits on contingency fees for lawyers, taxes on cigarettes, school budgeting, etc.

It appears that we have maneuvered ourselves into a draconian “Catch-22"--no taxes, no funding, no legislation, no services and no hope of improvement. The problems that we face are compounding even as our fiscal liability increases with each new bond. Accordingly, more state revenue must be used to pay debt principal and interest. This leaves less money for needed programs, thus necessitating more borrowing.

We have come full circle, mortgaging our future with this disastrous fiscal policy. Surely it is time for us to take a step back, gain perspective on the fundamental structural problems and find solutions for them. Only in that way can we hope to restore responsible government to this state.


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