Could a Supermajority Fall?

At the heart of California's budget troubles are a pair of supermajorities. One is the requirement of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, a famous limit that was part of Prop 13, the 1978 ballot initiative best known for putting limits on property taxes. The other supermajority -- the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget -- is even older, dating to the Great Depression.

California is the only state in the union that requires two-thirds votes for both budgets and tax hikes -- a double-barreled requirement that has tied our government in knots. Two-thirds is supposed to be a force for consensus, but in practice, this two-thirds budget system has amounted to minority rule. In each budget negotiation, the majority party (the Democrats in this era) has to bed, plead and bribe minority Republicans to pass a budget. Those bribes often consist of new spending, tax cuts, or questionable borrowing that add to the state's fiscal problems.

But that could change -- as soon as this fall. On Friday, the Democrats and labor unions supporting an initiative to eliminate one of these two supermajorities -- the 2/3 requirements for budgets -- will file signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot. Getting the measure passed will be an uphill fight -- Californians have grown accustomed to two-thirds -- but if they succeed, it would be a seismic shift at least politically.

Unfortunately, a majority-vote budget might not make the budget much healthier. Democrats would be able to pass a budget -- and thus mandate spending -- without Republicans. But the GOP would still have the weapon of the two-thirds vote on taxes to block revenue increases. In practice, a majority-vote budget with a supermajority for taxes could be the worst of both worlds: more Democratic spending, more Republican blocking of the tax increases required to pay for that spending, and an even bigger budget hole.

As a policy matter, it'd be better to get rid of both supermajorities. But getting rid of 2/3 for taxes would require changing the near-holy Prop 13.

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