One reform at a time

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vigorously opposed a 2004 ballot measure that would have lowered the supermajority needed forthe Legislature to pass a budget to 55% from the current two-thirds. Now, it seems, he’s not so sure. With his budget held up seven weeks past deadline by a handful of senators from his own Republican Party, the governor signaled last week that he might be willing to take another look at whether a small band of lawmakers representing a minority of Californians should continue to have disproportionate power over state spending.

The reason for the possible change of mind is obvious. In the 40-member state Senate, Schwarzenegger needs 27 votes for a budget deal. He has 26. But the 14 GOP senators saying no have demonstrated their resolve to vote as a bloc. If California weren’t in the company of only Rhode Island and Arkansas in requiring two-thirds for a budget vote, he’d be home by now.

With a 55% requirement, he’d need only 22 votes in the Senate, which means he wouldn’t need any Republican votes at all. The budget could be hammered out by Schwarzenegger and two Democrats: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, with whom the governor gets along famously, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, with whom he, well, has learned to do business.


It would be a great system. For Democrats. Or, in fact, for any political party that controls the Legislature. There would be no need to negotiate with, listen to or even acknowledge the existence of members of the minority party.

Republican lawmakers claim that until budget time, that’s exactly how they are treated. It’s understandable, although not acceptable, that the GOP senators would drag the state further into arrears and further behind schedule in order to raise issues no one paid attention to earlier in the year. Maybe next time, they are in effect saying to Perata -- and by extension, to Nuñez and Schwarzenegger -- you’ll take us more seriously when we have something to say in February.

A meaningful role for minority interests is integral to the democratic governing process. But building that role into the legislative structure, as does the California Constitution’s 45-year-old requirement of a two-thirds supermajority for all state budgets, creates a quandary. Special protections for a minority inherently vest that minority with unearned clout. Democrats cannot run roughshod over the interests of rural and suburban GOP districts. But Republicans, paradoxically, are empowered to hold the majority of the state hostage.

Republicans counter that their paltry presence in the Assembly and the Senate doesn’t reflect the sentiments of California’s population but is the result of the majority Democrats’ control over drawing district lines -- a control they exercise, naturally, to perpetuate and expand their majority status. With reform of something as mundane but important as the redistricting process, the argument goes, Republicans would have a larger presence in Sacramento and would not have to engage in the annual June and July (and August) theatrics over adopting a budget.

They have a point, although not necessarily the point they think they have. Honest and independent district line-drawing would divest both Democrats and Republicans of sure-thing districts in which elections are virtually over in the primary. More districts would be up for grabs, meaning that any Democrat hoping to win the election would have to have a message, and a track record, that Republican residents could accept. Any Republican would need Democratic voters to have a realistic shot. Lawmakers would stop playing to their extremist bases and appeal to more moderate voters in both parties.

It is encouraging that Schwarzenegger may be ready to revisit the question of California’s crippling two-thirds budget-vote requirement, but that shouldn’t shake him off course. Although he lost one attempt to overhaul redistricting, he is trying again and has gotten both parties close to an agreement. It’s the right priority. Redistricting may do more than any other reform to ease the state’s perpetual budget deadlock. Once a good plan is adopted, the governor should take up the supermajority question.