Listen closely, and that hissing in the Capitol over taxes may be the sound of Republicans cooking their own goose.
This small band of rigid ideologues may be in the process of doing in the only thing that currently makes them relevant in Sacramento: the two-thirds vote requirement for passage of a budget or a tax increase.
The issue has been simmering and may be ready for voters.
“It’s a very unusual moment because voters are so ticked off at the Legislature for this constant, year-after-year budget logjam,” says Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufman.
Kaufman is coordinating a coalition -- mainly labor unions -- that is preparing a ballot initiative to lower the two-thirds requirement to 55%. California voters -- 53.4% of them -- approved a similar measure for local school bonds in 2000. The new proposal is targeted for the March 2004 ballot, when sponsors hope a hot Democratic presidential primary will attract a good turnout of liberal voters.
The coalition’s cause will receive a huge boost from GOP legislators if they continue to thwart budget talks by refusing to consider a tax increase.
If there’s no budget by August, state government is likely to run out of cash. Employees may have to work for the minimum wage. Vendors won’t be paid. Teachers will be laid off.
And voters may be ready to toss the two-thirds rule into the garbage.
Hardly anybody, except a few hidebound Republicans, really believes a $38-billion budget hole can be patched without a tax hike. Even if it could, neither Democrats nor most Republicans would cut that deeply -- denying artificial limbs for poor people, adult diapers for the aged, decent class sizes for kids.
Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill says if every state employee was fired, that still wouldn’t balance the budget. If no state money was spent for the university system or on Medi-Cal, and if every state prisoner was freed -- not even that would close the gap.
This is all too familiar. And timid Democrats share the blame. For 13 of the last 16 years, the state has entered a new fiscal year on July 1 without a budget. Last year, lawmakers procrastinated into September.
To pass the next budget, at least six Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate will need to vote with Democrats to reach the magic two-thirds.
“We’ve created a system that is designed for gridlock,” notes Dean Tipps, California head of the Service Employees International Union, a chief sponsor of the ballot measure.
Many people and generations have been in on the faulty design.
It’s a relic of the 1800s when an anti-tax revolt swept the nation and California imposed the two-thirds rule on local bonds. During the 1930s Depression, it was extended to the state budget. And in 1978, while drastically cutting property taxes, voters placed the two-thirds requirement on legislative passage of any tax increase.
It’s undemocratic. Tyranny by the minority. And definitely out of step.
Only two other states, Arkansas and Rhode Island, require a supermajority vote for budget passage. Eleven -- Florida the largest -- mandate it for taxes.
In most states and Congress, the majority party rules on taxes and spending, and is held accountable by voters.
Hold it right there, say supporters of the two-thirds rule. Because of California’s gross gerrymandering in 2001, which provided safe seats for incumbents, very few lawmakers face tough reelection races. So voters are robbed of a chance to hold their representatives accountable.
Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, says the business community will aggressively oppose the ballot measure. Businesspeople fear making it easier to raise taxes, he says, and don’t trust this Democratic bunch.
They’ve already been burned by Democrats on workers’ comp insurance and employee benefits that have driven up business costs, Zaremberg says. “I’ve never seen such anger.”
That’s what voters are feeling toward Sacramento generally, says pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who normally works for Republicans but has been hired by the labor coalition.
“The public has become more anti-politician but not more anti-tax,” Lohuizen says. “The anti-politician attitude goes well beyond the governor to the entire Legislature.”
Like the public has trouble with hires who consistently can’t get their work done on time.
So the initiative sponsors are sweetening the pot for voters with these two goodies: The governor and legislators must forfeit their salaries for each day the budget is late. And after the deadline, no other bill can be acted on until a budget is passed.
This may be very tempting for voters.
Republicans need to ask themselves which is worse: raising some taxes or losing all their relevance -- and maybe their summer pay.