Tearing Hair, Supermajorities and More Spending

Trying to explain the problems of supermajorities to Californians is a difficult task. I had an "I want to tear my hair out moment" yesterday reading a brief commentary on one of my efforts at the Flash Report, a leading conservative blog run by Jon Fleischman, a Republican party official whom I personally like and admire.

Fleischman dismissed my piece on supermajorities in the Sunday LA Times as "liberal" and as an argument for "spend spend spend." In fact, the piece explained the truth of supermajorities is precisely the opposite. They have produced more spending, and more debt.

That's counterintuitive -- contrary to conventional wisdom. But also true. Here's how it works: By mandating supermajorities for all sorts of budget items, members of both parties need to sign off on every budget. As a result, neither party takes full responsibility for the budget. Without the two-thirds budget vote requirement, whatever party has the majority would legitimately get the blame when state finances go south or taxes get too high. But in a two-thirds system, no one may fairly say that a budget belonged to one party or the other.

The result? Both parties behave far more irresponsibly than they might in a majority vote system.

Each budget season, the minority Republicans use the leverage provided by the 2/3 rule to block the budget until the majority Democrats meet a list of Republican demands. These demands usually involve things that cost money -- tax cuts and increased spending on programs Republicans like. Inevitably, the Democrats have to meet these demands, and so they pile the Republican spending on top of whatever spending Democrats have insisted upon.

Plus, the Democrats' spending is almost certainly higher than it would be in a majority vote system, because they know that Republicans can eventually be blamed for any excesses.

To pay for all this spending, the legislature turns to questionable borrowing and various budget gimmicks. Which is why this state has persistent budget deficits.

The excessive spending produced in supermajority systems shouldn't be a revelation. In a 1996 report, the California Constitutional Revision Commission described this same dynamic: "Although conventional wisdom indicates otherwise, the two-thirds vote requirement does not seem to limit higher levels of spending. In practice, it encourages it."

One would think California's fiscal conservatives would want to reverse the two-thirds rule. Instead, they cling to it -- because of the power it gives their party, the Republicans. In California, it seems, political power trumps good budget policy -- and math.

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