Pete Rates the Propositions
Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions      since 1980      by Pete Stahl

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Prop.   1 - YES
Prop. 26 - NO
Prop. 27 - NO
Prop. 28 - NO
Prop. 29 - NO
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Prop. 31 - YES
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Pete Rates the Propositions
March 2004


Pete no longer recommends:
56   NO   55 Percent Vote to Pass State Budget

Proposition 56: 55 Percent Vote to Pass State Budget - NO

Note: This is my original rating of Prop 56, in which I recommended a NO vote. In it, I violate one of my own cardinal rules: Never vote against proposition because of what it doesn't do. In this case, I complain bitterly that Prop 56 won't reduce the partisanship of legislators, which I see as the root cause of the legislature's perpetual inability to pass a budget on time. I further postulate that legislator partisanship could be reduced by a new redistricting process. This violates another one of my cardinal rules: Don't change the subject! On balance, Prop 56 will be beneficial, as I explain in my revised rating above. I include this obsolete rating just for the sake of historical curiosity. —Pete

Prop 56 seeks to eliminate the annual budget horror show in Sacramento by reducing the required vote in the legislature from two-thirds to 55%. This will indeed break the logjam, but not in a way you'd really want. I'll explain in a moment. But first, a tirade.

The North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.
"I never," he said, "take a step to one side.
And I'll prove to you that I won't change my ways
If I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days!"

A popular school of thought holds that today's political atmosphere of intense partisanship can be largely attributed to non-competitive legislative districts. These districts are so heavily tilted toward one party of the other that they foster the election of strongly partisan representatives. Legislators from such districts tend to avoid working with the other party, because it may leave them vulnerable to charges of party disloyalty in their home district primaries. The result is that legislators are predisposed toward obstinacy and against compromise.

Is it happening in California? In a word, yes. A quick peek at our current districts reveals fantastically contorted gerrymanders designed to maximize the number of safe Democratic and, consequently, also safe Republican districts.

Consider, for example, the psychedelic, fractal-patterned State Senate districts 16 and 18. These districts' interlocking spiral arms gently separate the Democratic and Republican neighborhoods of Bakersfield, Visalia, and other San Joaquin Valley cities. Even though the districts cover the same part of the state, District 16 has a 45,000-voter Democratic advantage and District 18 a 60,000-voter Republican advantage. (Each district has roughly 300,000 registered voters.)

The November general election means nothing in such districts. The majority-party candidate is assured of victory. Instead, what's important is the primary contest. And how do you win a partisan primary? By appealing to activist and loyalist elements within your party. So candidates in primaries accuse each other of not being "true Republicans," or of being too ready to compromise on core Democratic issues like the environment. Typically, moderates lose these primaries to hardliners. They are then rubber-stamped in November, even if there's significant independent and crossover vote for moderate minority-party nominees, because the district registration is so heavily tilted. The result is a legislature (and Congress) full of extreme partisans, responsive only to the members of their own party, with no incentive to compromise or back down from obstructionist tactics.

The solution is more competitive districts. These will encourage legislators to be responsive to all constituents, since they'll presumably need at least some independent and crossover support to win November general elections. To get more competitive districts we'll probably need a new nonpartisan commission, whose formation must be approved by voters.

But that's not on this ballot. Prop 56 is. (End of tirade.)

"And I'll prove to YOU," yelled the South-Going Zax,
"That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax
For fifty-nine years! For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School."

The state Constitution requires the legislature to pass a budget with a two-thirds vote by June 15 each year. This has become a big joke; they've missed the deadline every year since 1986. Instead, we've seen increasingly distressing displays of partisan obstructionism, gubernatorial obstinacy, and mutual backbiting, even during the roaring economy of the late 1990s when budgeting should have been easy.

Delayed state budgets throw a monkey wrench into the planning process for state agencies, local governments and school districts. That in turn leads to temporary agency and local budgets riddled with massive uncertainty, followed by an emergency re-budgeting exercise when the state budget finally passes. It's a mess.

"Never budge! That's my rule. Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!"

The authors of Prop 56 think they can break up the yearly budget gridlock with a two-pronged approach. First, they'll reduce the super-majority required to pass a budget from two-thirds to 55%. Second, if legislators miss the June 15 deadline, they must stay in session until it passes, considering only the budget. To provide further incentive, legislators and the governor must forfeit their salaries and expenses until they're done. (As if the current governor would notice…)

Reducing the required super-majority will certainly speed things up. As it now stands, Democrats constitute 60% of the Assembly and 62% of the Senate. This is shy of the two-thirds required to pass a budget, so the Democrats will have to court the votes of a few Republicans to pass this year's budget. As you can imagine, it's a sticky business. The Republicans make outrageous demands, the Democrats refuse, and stalemate ensues. Under Prop 56, that would all change. Assuming they can get their party caucus to agree on a bill, under Prop 56 the Democrats would be able to pass a budget without a single Republican vote. Bye-bye, partisan obstructionism.

If you're a Democrat, you're probably cheering at the prospect. No more forced concessions to the pet special interests of Republican legislators; no more knuckling under to their right-wing agendas; no more pork for Republican districts. (Of course, there's no guarantee that the Democrats will retain control in Sacramento forever. Will 55% seem like such a good idea if and when Republicans are in control?)

Still, there's something wrong with Prop 56's solution. It goes like this:

  1. Party in Power redistricts following the 2000 census. It creates safe districts for both parties, fostering the election of Strongly Partisan Legislators. A solid majority, but not two-thirds, are of the Party in Power.
  2. Strongly Partisan Legislators, incapable of compromise, naturally have one hell of a time passing budgets with two-thirds vote for years on end.
  3. People sick of the process (and mostly sympathetic to the Party in Power) submit Prop 56 to you and me, asking for 55% instead of two-thirds vote to pass the budget.
  4. Voters reward Party in Power with the ability to pass the budget by itself.

This medicine treats the symptoms, but not the underlying disease. Yes, under Prop 56 we'll see less gridlock at budget time. But we will do so by effectively disenfranchising everyone in the minority party, and handing the reins to highly partisan legislators, who don't have to care because of their gerrymandered districts. That's just not my idea of representative democracy. It's a process that can only breed more cynicism, bitterness, and disillusionment with our government. I want to see more people feel they can make a difference, not fewer. Prop 56 won't help.

By the way, Prop 56 also would allow the Legislature to raise taxes with a 55% vote instead of the currently-required two-thirds vote. If you feel strongly that we need tax increases to solve our current budget mess, consider jettisoning principle to vote "yes" on Prop 56. Oh, and Prop 56 also contains provisions for a reserve fund to help buffer the General Fund against year-to-year fluctuations. This is largely echoed in Prop 58, though.

"I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will
If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!"

I feel great sympathy for the cities, counties, school boards and state agencies that are annually held hostage to the broken budget process. I too would love to see a quick and easy solution to the problem. But Prop 56 is the wrong way to do it. We need legislators who can work with members of the other party, not ride roughshod over them. Pushing the North-Going Zax out of the way may lead to southward progress, but that won't help us if where we really need to go is east or west.

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