Friday, May 24

Majority rule would save state


The problem of the California budget could be solved by 14 simple words: “All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.”

That is the entire text of the California Democracy Act, a piece of proposed legislation intended to change the way the Legislature votes on the crucial issues of revenue and budgets, and the crux of the California Majority Rule Campaign’s efforts.

The current process of passing the California budget is relatively uncomplicated.

The Governor outlines his fiscal plans for the year, two identical budgets are submitted (one for the Assembly and one for the Senate), the committees debate and discuss the finer points of the budget bill, and then it stalls.

And stalls. And stalls.

This sort of political incompetence is not unusual in the California Legislature, which has grown accustomed to turning in its homework late.

Ideally, the Legislature could quickly scrap together a two-thirds majority vote, and avoid the tedious sort of haggling that usually results in compromises that make everybody unhappy. The California Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass any sort of legislation relating to revenues or budgets.

It seems like requiring a supermajority to get things done would be a good thing. With that requirement, if a piece of legislation passes, it has the backing of most of the Legislature ““ there is little chance of an important bill barely scraping by only half-supported by congressmen, and having at least 66 percent of the Legislature behind a bill gives it a sense of credence and weight: this is really what most of the people want. How democratic!

But this is actually not as democratic as it seems.

“The best kind of government we’ve got is a democracy. The reason why California government isn’t working is because it’s not democratic: the state is broken for a reason,” says Chris Ah San, a fourth-year music and economics student, and the statewide student organizing director for the California Majority Rule Campaign.

Calling for a two-thirds majority means that just a smidgen more than one-third of the Legislature can stall the entire revenue and budget bill process. Sometimes, the process stalls for up to 85 days, the record of how long it took for the Legislature in 2008 to approve the budget. Requiring a two-thirds majority is not worth the time and money it takes to form a two-thirds majority. The oft-repeated refrain of the California Majority Rule Campaign is that the state is, in essence, being ruled by “˜one-third plus one’ of the Legislature.

“We’re probably the state in the most dire fiscal condition right now,” said Erienne Overli, a second-year political science student and the statewide director of petitioning for the campaign. “[The fiscal condition is] largely because a minority in Legislature can pretty much hold budget and revenue bills hostage until they get what they want.”

Changing the way the Legislature votes ““ something that might seems overly technical and esoteric ““ would substantially help students. By lowering the number of votes needed to approve a bill from just a little bit more than 66 percent to just a bit more than 50 percent, we could speed up the process of passing revenue and budget bills, and avoid the sort of mulish haggling that leads to months-long delays and cuts in funding for higher education and social services .

The supermajority rule has had near-fatal effects on the University of California. The issue of how much money goes to higher education is always a problem in the California Legislature. It typically finishes as a toss-up between devoting funds to schools or prisons.

Right now, it appears that the preference of the Legislature is to continue funding the prison system. There is a pressing question here: is funding for prisons what the entire Legislature wants, or is the majority merely acquiescing to the demands of the minority? It looks like the Legislature prefers to decrease funding for higher education. This is the reason our tuition went up 32 percent: the University of California had to make up for the loss in funding from the government by increasing fees for us, the students.

There are other problems in the California Legislature that affect how the game of politics is played up in Sacramento. For example, Proposition 140 and the restrictions on term limits make compromise seem unappealing and unnecessary ““ why spend time negotiating and haggling over issues with the other side of the aisle if you’re not going to stay long anyway? It seems like a better idea to stick to one’s guns for the short duration in office. Further complicating the issue are special interest groups such as the fantastically powerful prison guards’ union, which always manages to ensure that prisons receive a substantial part of the budget.

But these things all bolster the theory that requiring a supermajority is a bad idea because they encourage too much nitpicking and not enough compromise. Discussion is a good thing, especially in politics, but not when it entails stiff-necked demands such as refusing to approve a bill that even approaches the idea of increasing revenue.

Having one-third plus one of the Legislature ““ all that is necessary to prevent 66 percent approval on a bill ““ control the process and prevent forward progress is hardly democratic at all. Minority rule goes against the fundamental concept of a democratic state. The California Democracy Act could restore power to the majority, and California could finally dig itself out of our hole of fiscal disaster.

E-mail de la Fuente at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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