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Two-Thirds Budget Vote Has to Go

John Laird (D-27) is Assembly member for California’s 27th District, which includes portions of Monterey, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. He is chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, a member of the Budget Conference Committee and vice chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

When I served on the League of California Cities board 20 years ago, some decisions made in the state Capitol were challenging to local government. Now, after six years in the Assembly, things seem the same --- which should tell you the structure is as much the issue as the legislators.

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.

California is one of three states with a two-thirds requirement, joining Rhode Island and Arkansas. And it’s not just the two-thirds requirement --- 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.

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 of the process, usually too late to influence it.

As I write this, the budget is almost two months late. The Democratic legislative committees and the governor have long since proposed balanced budgets with some new taxes, none of which include borrowing.

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 conclude. 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.

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 47 other states do not do this --- and that their budgets are adopted on time.