End the supermajority

Most legislative bodies operate by majority rule: Get more votes than your opponents, and you win. It works that way with legislation, and in most of the democratic world it works that way when adopting the annual budget, a political body’s most vital policy document. A legislature needs a supermajority only in the most unusual circumstances, such as overriding the executive’s veto.

But in California, common sense and basic democratic functions are turned on their heads. This state’s Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority simply to adopt a budget or increase taxes. For most of the 75 years since voters engrafted the extraordinary threshold onto the Constitution, its effect was close to invisible, because budgets were adopted with near unanimity. But in the last several years, the two-thirds law has warped the budget process, giving an absolute veto to whatever minority can cling to just over 33% of seats in either house. In fact, it makes the governor superfluous, because any budget that passes also has, by definition, enough support to override an executive veto.

That helps make California, once the state of optimism and opportunity, the land of “no.” Out of fear of choosing the wrong road (deeper cuts or higher taxes? safer streets or better schools? individual empowerment or common wealth?), we have ensured that we are perpetually stalled in the intersection, with economic disaster barreling toward us.

This page, too, is a creature of California, relishing the state’s exceptionalism and only half-heartedly willing to let go of a structure that, with time and in theory, could bring lawmakers of opposing viewpoints to the table to hammer out budgets on which all agree. In the past, we have branded the two-thirds requirement “crippling” and alluded to its inflexibility, and have cited the numerous times in which it helped delay budgets well past their legal deadlines. But even when listing it as one of the ills that plague the state, we’ve been reticent to fully support an end to the supermajority requirement.

That’s over. It has become abundantly clear that California can no longer function with a supermajority requirement shared only by Arkansas and Rhode Island, states with vastly smaller budgets, populations and challenges. An end to two-thirds for budgets must also mean, inevitably, an end to two-thirds for taxes.

Voters adopted the supermajority budget requirement during the Great Depression. It applied only when the budget grew by more than 5% over the previous year. It was a type of soft and permeable spending cap. In 1962, faced with a measure that ostensibly was meant to clean up messy constitutional language, voters extended the two-thirds rule to all budgets, regardless of the amount of growth.

Going back to majority votes for budgets, as was the case before 1933, would put California in the company of most other states, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) introduced a constitutional amendment to that effect at the beginning of the current session. It adds a twist: The simple-majority requirement evaporates, and once again becomes two-thirds, for any budget bill not adopted by June 15. That’s similar to Illinois, Maine and Nebraska, where, the argument goes, there’s an added incentive for the majority to get its work done on time.

But California Republicans, too, recognize the problem caused by the runaway supermajority rule. Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) also has introduced a constitutional amendment. Hers would be a pre-1962, but not pre-1933, simple-majority measure. It’s actually quite shrewd: Democrats, or whoever is in the majority, would be able to adopt a budget on a majority vote, but only if it represents growth of 5% or less over the previous year. The Republicans would have their spending cap, but it could be breached. That’s similar to Connecticut and Hawaii, but it’s worth noting that it has been years since California produced a budget with growth smaller than 5%.

Each of these proposed reforms must overcome two essential roadblocks: As part of some existential irony, each measure must muster two-thirds of each house to get on the ballot, and then voters -- who refused to do away with two-thirds at the polls just four years ago, must recognize the urgency and vote yes.

There is another avenue. Getting rid of the two-thirds requirement could be accomplished as part of a broader overhaul of California government at a constitutional convention. It may have to come to that.

If Bass’ amendment were in effect now, California would have a balanced budget. It also would have higher taxes, but taxpayers could rebel, as they have shown themselves willing to do. They could vote Republicans in, and it would be the new minority -- Democrats -- who insist on a supermajority rule. They shouldn’t have it, just as Republicans shouldn’t have it now. Minority rights should be protected, but vesting the minority party with the power to dictate to the majority isn’t protection, it’s subversion.