Thursday, December 11, 2008

New battle cry for Dems: Get rid of two-thirds vote on budget

SACRAMENTO — Eliminating the supermajority vote required to pass budgets has become the Democrats' newfound battle cry, especially as another round of potentially lengthy and acrimonious budget negotiations appears inevitable.

Ideally, Democrats would like to be able to pass budgets on time with a simple majority vote, avoid messy negotiations with the minority party, and take full control over where budget cuts are made.

"One of the problems with the current system is the tyranny of the minority — Republicans just holding out," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who will be holding hearings on the subject as chairwoman of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments committee. "If the Republican agenda is to shrink government, they just sit and do nothing. We need to restore accountability."

Some observers are wondering, however, why Democrats would want to take on the burden of cutting programs without being able to increase revenues to fund the growing need for services. California is one of seven states that require a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes and one of three states that require a two-thirds vote on the budget. But Democrats are aiming only to eliminate the budget supermajority and not the tax vote.

"That approach, offers nothing obvious that helps fund these priorities," said Steve Levy, director and senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, "so Advertisementthe advantage is you get a clear statement of what the majority wants, but it doesn't put another dollar toward the budget."

After Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, introduced her own constitutional amendment to lower the vote threshold on budgets to a simple majority, Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, reacted with predictable outrage, saying Democrats were bent on a "power grab."

Villines later laid out a list of demands that symbolized the leverage Republicans feel they have in budget negotiations. He said Democrats must agree to workplace reforms, loosened environmental standards, spending controls and permanent budget cuts before he'd even consider raising taxes as part of a budget deal.

The problem, said Jean Ross, executive director at the California Budget Project, is not rounding up votes for a budget. It's finding the support to pass a budget that needs additional revenues — particularly in tight fiscal times. Lawmakers are seeking to fill a $30 billion hole over the next 18 months, and most experts agree it can't be done with cuts alone.

"If you believe in majoritarian democracy, you want the same vote requirement for taxing and spending because the two sides of the budget have to work together," Ross said.

But Democrats remain gun-shy on taxes — nearly five years after voters rejected, by a two-to-one margin, Proposition 56, a measure that, among other reforms, sought to replace the two-thirds vote required on taxes and the budget with a 55 percent threshold.

"I don't think it's impossible" to run a campaign to eliminate the two-thirds vote on taxes, said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant who directed the Proposition 56 campaign.

"If you're going to all the trouble to put something on the ballot, the real teeth is in taxes. But when you're dealing with an esoteric concept that most voters don't have a clue about, and when all the opposition has to say is this will raise taxes, people get scared."

The two-thirds vote requirement on taxes is a firewall against lawmakers' insatiable desire to spend on favorite programs, said Allan Zaremberg, president of CalChamber, which led the 2004 campaign against Proposition 56.

"When the public knows where money will go, they're more likely to vote for tax increases," Zaremberg said. "But when you just do tax increases to go into the general pot of money, the public is skeptical.

The public has spoken and what they said five years ago is still very, very valid."

Ross, the budget analyst, disagrees.

"Look at the private economy. The largest corporations are coming to Washington with hat in hand with the understanding that when times are tough, government is who we turn to keep the whole economy working."

Taxpayer advocates insist that the tax vote is off-limits, but they're willing to loosen their grip on the budget vote, though not without strings attached.

They want to be able to create spending limits — to handle higher revenues during flush economic times — and the authority to prevent administrative agencies from raising fees.

"As long as the two-thirds vote remains on increasing taxes, letting the majority party determine how to spend money that's limited in its growth seems to be a reasonable idea," said Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, based near Sacramento. "But to just let the legislative leadership decide how to spend with no cap won't do."

Even on what could be considered the less-threatening change to budget votes, Democrats would have to agree to whatever restrictions Republicans desire: They need a two-thirds vote just to get it on the ballot. Otherwise, they'd have to wage a public campaign that would require millions of dollars to collect enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

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