Reforms That Gridlocked a Legislature

California’s political gridlock--the failure of the people we elect to sagely lead us through shifting, shaky times--can be blamed on many things: No guts, corruption of money, rigid extremists on the left and the right, a divided electorate sending mixed messages. . . .

Me, I blame the “H.J.” guys--Hiram Johnson and Howard Jarvis. They’re my principal villains.

Both, in their distinctive ways, were do-gooders who championed “reforms” that led inevitably to unintended consequences now costing us big time.

Sure, each did some good. Johnson freed California from the corrupt railroad machine. Jarvis got soaring property taxes lowered. But their good deeds did not include the unintended consequences of that undemocratic concept called “the super-majority vote"--specifically, the two-thirds vote requirement for passage of a state budget and most tax increases.


Let’s put this in perspective: If it’s such a great idea to always require a two-thirds vote for legislative passage of a budget, why is California the only state that does? We’ve had this for seven decades. Yet, no other state has caught on to its blessings.

These other states must realize that a super-majority is contrary to majority rule, producing minority tyranny, gridlock and rancid pork barrels.

“The vast majority of states that have simple majority requirements have weathered their budgetary crises more effectively than California,” the bipartisan California Citizens Budget Commission recently reported. “None of these states have produced deficit spending remotely close to California’s.”



The so-called Progressives back in 1910 saddled California with a fiscal straitjacket that periodically has been tightened. Their hero, leader and successful gubernatorial candidate was Hiram Johnson, a San Francisco graft prosecutor.

These Progressives gave us the ballot initiative, weak political parties and a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for tax changes. They almost immediately realized, too late, that they’d made a big mistake with the super-majority vote.

With citizens rebelling against corruption, the minority Progressives had pressured the railroad-dominated Legislature into offering voters a ballot measure imposing the state’s first bank and corporation tax. And to assure that the machine majority could not later cut the tax, the Progressives inserted a two-thirds vote requirement for any legislative tinkering.

Whoops! The Progressives swept the election and seized control of the Legislature. The two-thirds requirement backfired. It now protected the railroad machine, which had become the minority. The Progressives were powerless to change a tax that wound up socking small businesses far harder than big corporations.

Later, in 1933, the two-thirds vote was extended to the budget. The idea was to hold down spending. We know how well that worked.

Skip to 1978. Howard Jarvis, a political gadfly and apartment owners’ lobbyist, joined by realtor Paul Gann, used the Progressives’ initiative process to drastically cut the property tax. But that’s not all. The measure, Proposition 13, also imposed a two-thirds legislative vote for any state tax increase--income, sales or business. Conversely, it allowed any tax to be cut by a simple majority.

For local communities, it forbade any property tax hike at all and required a two-thirds vote of the electorate for a special sales tax.

More perspective: In America, a 60% vote is a landslide and a rarity. It’s practically impossible to get 67% agreement even on where to grab lunch.



The two-thirds vote destroys flexibility. It prevents fine-tuning of taxes to correct inequities and stabilize revenues. One tax can be lowered, but to raise another is practically impossible. And one thing hasn’t changed over the years: The big private interests like it that way.

Sneaky fees have replaced straightforward taxes as strapped governments struggle to maintain public services.

He’s long dead, but Howard Jarvis still packs a wallop with politicians. Nobody’s arming for a frontal assault on Proposition 13. The closest to it is a recommendation by the California Constitution Revision Commission to ease some local taxing restrictions.

The requirement for a two-thirds budget vote, however, is under attack. Both the Constitution Revision and Citizens Budget commissions are recommending it be scuttled.

“There is no evidence [it] does anything to slow the increase in state spending,” the budget commission asserts. “Instead, it encourages horse trading [and] pork barrel legislation.”

If they do nothing else, today’s reformers could take a progressive step into the 21st Century by bringing majority rule to California’s unseemly budget process.