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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Democrats Want to Lower Threshold Needed to Pass Budget

Democrats Want to Lower Threshold Needed to Pass Budget

By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

It’s not easy to pass a budget that requires a two-thirds majority of the state legislature. So why not lower the threshold?

A Democratic-led coalition is trying to do just that through an initiative that would lower the required legislative majority to 55 percent. It would also penalize legislators for failing to pass a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline, chiefly by docking their pay.

“It makes sense because it prevents a minority from controlling the majority or holding the state hostage,” said Assembly Budget Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach.

As of last week, nearly 700,000 signatures had been gathered, according to Andrew Acosta, campaign spokesman for the proposed initiative. If verified, that amount would exceed the 598,105 signatures needed by Nov. 17 to place the measure on the March 2004 ballot.

Opponents say the initiative is a back-door way to enact tax increases.

“This whole idea about making legislators more accountable to pass a budget on time that’s all a fraud. What the backers of this measure really want to do is to make it easier to raise taxes,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Republican legislators, who fear the measure would give Democrats total control over the Legislature, are certain to oppose it.

“It certainly becomes more difficult on fiscal matters when power is concentrated on one side,” said Assembly Republican Leader David Cox, R-Sacramento. “More importantly, it would be devastating for all of California, because it would mean that California would never have to constrain spending.”

The two-thirds rule has been around since 1924 but up until recently it hasn’t been considered especially onerous since legislators usually were able to compromise. Even in the budget deadlocks of the early 1990s, Republicans and Democrats were able to cut deals, although that was helped in part by then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s willingness to support a $7 billion tax increase.

In recent years, though, a combination of redistricting into safe seats, party-specific primaries and term limits has resulted in legislators from both parties gravitating toward political extremes.

Last year, the standoff lasted two months before a handful of Republicans yielded to the Democrat-sponsored budget package. This year, after gaining four seats in both houses, Republican leaders said they would hold firm against tax increases to close a $38 billion deficit. The Republicans finally convinced Democrats to abandon the tax package.

As this year’s standoff progressed, pressure built among Democratic leaders in the Legislature to change the two-thirds vote rule, which is also in effect in Arkansas and Rhode Island. By June, a coalition of traditional Democrat allies public employee and labor unions had drafted an initiative.

At the height of the budget crisis, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said he would file a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to lift the two-thirds vote requirement on the grounds that it prevents the legislature from raising enough revenues to fund education. The planned lawsuit was never filed as legislators neared a budget deal.

Acosta said backers drew on a recommendation in a bipartisan 1996 report that outlined changes that could be made to the state constitution. That report recommended a simple majority vote to pass a budget.

But backers knew that voters have been wary of reducing the two-thirds majority in anything having to do with taxes. In the 1990s, they rejected a measure that would have required a simple majority to pass local school construction bonds. The two-thirds threshold was eventually lowered when voters passed Proposition 39 in 2000, but only after the limit was set at 55 percent.

So initiative backers decided to use the 55 percent threshold. That would still be low enough for all Democrats in the current legislature to pass a budget without a single Republican vote. But if Republicans were to pick up a few seats in next year’s elections, that would leave the legislature in the same position it was for much of this summer, without enough Democratic votes to pass a budget on their own.

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