By John Laird
Assembly Budget Committee
FROM THE CALIFORNIA progress report
Aug 28 /1PM - The state budget is now nearly two months late. Republican legislative leaders refuse to offer a budget for consideration, let alone level with California about the need to increase revenue in order to prevent very deep, draconian cuts.
At more than $15 billion, the budget shortfall is breathtaking and the only way to bridge the gap is through a balanced mix of responsible cuts and new revenues—Democrats in the legislature have proposed billions in difficult cuts coupled with raising taxes on the wealthiest Californians and closing tax loopholes.
Even Governor Schwarzenegger has reversed his pledge against tax increases and has come to understand that the alternative to a tax increase is devastating cuts to education, healthcare, environmental resources and public safety.
Republican legislators have come to the table with just one thing: signed pledges not to raise taxes. How is it possible that a minority in the legislature can hold up the state budget while not even proposing how to end the stand-off? The two-thirds budget approval requirement in the state constitution.
California is one of three states with a two-thirds requirement—joining Rhode Island and Arkansas. And it's not just the two-thirds; it's the resulting unique budget culture that is also the problem.
The first issue is party discipline. After a 2001 budget in which four Assembly Republicans joined all Democrats in approving a budget, for various reasons not one of those Republican legislators returned after the next election. That experience hangs over every budget.
The second issue is leverage. This past spring, Republican legislative leaders indicated they wanted to slow down implementation of AB 32, California's popular anti-global warming law, as a condition of budget approval. The two-thirds requirement gives them the leverage to attempt this. Some Republicans are even seeking to expand this leverage power by insisting on a two-thirds vote at every procedural level. This would only further undermine efforts for responsible budgets.
The third issue is transparency. Not since the 2003-04 legislative session has there been a public budget proposal from the Republican side. Each year, the budget is delayed with no public alternative proposal in play. When the final budget is negotiated—generally, out of the public eye—advocates for health care, transit, education and local government find out just before a public vote what was on the table at the end—generally too late to influence it.
Two months into the budget stand-off, the Democratic legislative committees and the Governor have long-since proposed balanced budgets with some new taxes and targeted cuts—none of these proposed budget have included borrowing. And, if by the time you read this, there is borrowing in the budget—it is not what the Governor or a majority of the legislature wanted. It will be the two-thirds requirement that will have leveraged it in so the budget process can end.
To add insult to injury, often the very interests that leverage borrowing into the budget won’t actually vote for the budget—leaving it to the rest of us to approve a budget that includes things we find distasteful.
While any list of necessary state reforms should include campaign finance, the initiative process, redistricting and term limits—at the top of the list should be the legislative two-thirds budget approval requirement.
It’s said the two-thirds requirement protects fiscal responsibility. I think the opposite is true. We got where we are now with the two-thirds requirement. This is no way to run the government of the eighth largest economy in the world. This needs to be changed. There's a reason forty-seven other states do not do this—and that their budgets are adopted on time.
For more about the state budget crisis, go to www.assembly.ca.gov/laird.
Assemblymember John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) is chair of the Assembly Budget Committee