Were California voters especially wise Tuesday when they adopted both Proposition 25, which erases the Legislature's crippling two-thirds vote requirement for adopting a budget, and Proposition 26, which imposes a new two-thirds mandate for imposing or raising a fee? End the gridlock, perhaps they were saying, but not at the expense of taxpaying families or businesses.
Or were they being especially clueless, telling Democratic lawmakers to adopt the budget they want, but without knowing or caring that they were simultaneously making the job close to impossible by depriving those same politicians of one of their chief budget-balancing tools?
It's tempting but in the end pointless to try to find a consistent voter philosophy among the confusing and often contradictory ballot measures. The electorate's role is to say "yes" or "no" to individual questions; it's up to their elected leaders and representatives to make those decisions work. In the coming year, lawmakers and the once-and-future Gov. Jerry Brown will be presented with an opportunity in Proposition 25, the majority-vote budget, possibly the most important reform adopted at the ballot box in a generation. They will have to demonstrate wisdom, leadership and self-restraint to take good advantage of it without being snared by Proposition 26 and the other ballot-box budgeting mandates sent them by voters in this election and others over the last 30 years.
California's persistent fiscal mess is based less on poor budget decisions in Sacramento than it is on the inability to make a decision of any kind. At the heart of the problem has been the two-thirds supermajority requirement, imposed by voters in three stages. First, during the Depression, voters decided that no budget could be passed in a slow-growth year without the approval of two-thirds of the members of each house of the Legislature. Then, in the 1960s, the two-thirds requirement was extended to include all budgets in all years. Then, in 1978 as part of Proposition 13, it was applied to all tax increases as well. Proposition 25 undoes the two-thirds requirement only on budgets. It remains in place on taxes and, in fact, is now, under Proposition 26, extended to fees.
Now, like every other state in the nation but two, California will be able to adopt a budget on a majority vote (as long as that budget doesn't include any tax or fee hikes). It's an important step up from deadlock and stasis, and holds the prospect of returning the Legislature to a measure of accountability that it has too long eluded.
Majority votes form the core of democracy. A majority is a mathematically unique number. Any deviation from majority rule in a legislative body gives disproportionate power to the minority. Require less than a majority, and a small cabal can have its way. Require a supermajority, and an equally small group can stymie the will of the majority by repeatedly saying "no." In California's Legislature, the minority party — the Republicans — has held fast to that power, arguing that it is the last check on irresponsible spending. But the result has been a budget process that stretches well past the constitutional June 15 deadline, and that delay has, in turn, damaged California's reputation and creditworthiness far more than any cuts sought by GOP lawmakers or taxes proposed by Democrats.
Conservatives should also recognize that Democrats have been able to use the requirement to shirk accountability. No more. Democratic lawmakers must now stand behind their budgets. The electorate — especially the large and growing number of decline-to-state voters — will know exactly whom to hold responsible if the next budget is late or unbalanced.
No doubt Democrats would like to be able to raise taxes on a majority vote as well, and, in fact, the same principles that make two-thirds wrong for budgeting make it wrong for taxes. But for the present voters don't appear to agree with them. Meanwhile, Democrats need no longer bargain away substantive and non-budget-related policy points merely to score Republican budget support. They may bargain for GOP support on taxes, but they have a choice.
Proposition 25 is a useful new tool, but it alone doesn't solve the state government's structural problems. In passing Proposition 22, voters cut off another source of state funds by protecting redevelopment agencies and local governments. Of course, those very agencies and governments would have run out of their own funds and gone bankrupt many times had they not been bailed out by Sacramento after Proposition 13 and then after the reduction of the vehicle license fee in the 1990s. When the state "raids" local treasuries, it is merely taking back its own money — money it can no longer afford to give away. But voters have made clear repeatedly that they prefer funding for local programs. In rejecting Proposition 21, a new vehicle fee to support parks, voters said no to the fee but presumably didn't say no to state parks, which still must be funded — or lost to posterity.
Now more than ever it becomes the responsibility of Brown and the legislative majority to remind Californians that institutions that make a safe, just and abundant life here possible — courts, disaster preparedness, the Highway Patrol, water systems, schools and universities — are a bargain but nevertheless require funding.