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Diana Shaw: Two-thirds or not two-thirds

Posted: January 18, 2010 5:25 p.m.
Updated: January 19, 2010 4:55 a.m.
This year's hottest state issue will be an initiative to change Sacramento's two-thirds budget vote rule to a simple majority.

The proponents of the measure, which has entered the petition-circulation phase, claim the current requirement that any state budget must be approved by two-thirds of our legislators led to last year's budget debacle. A $42 billion shortfall resulted in California having the lowest bond rating of all the states, propelling us toward financial insolvency.

I'll be supporting this measure. It's hardly a radical idea. Out of 50 states, only California, Rhode Island and Arkansas require a super-majority to pass a budget. After comparing Arkansas, Rhode Island and California, our process appears downright self-defeating.

The entire population of Arkansas is only two-thirds the size of Los Angeles while California, the most populous state, has 36.8 million people, comprising the eigth largest economy in the world.

Plus, the people of Arkansas are eminently more rational than Californians because their constitution drops the super-majority requirement to a simple majority for matters concerning education, highways and lowering the debt. So much for Arkansas.

That leaves little Rhode Island, with a population about the size of San Jose. I checked how Rhode Island is doing. Not so great.

According to, Rhode Island also faced a huge budget deficit last year.

I also checked the Web site devoted to California's debt and investment. If you want the simple life, move to Rhode Island.

Having the eigth largest economy in the world vaults California into the big leagues. I didn't have the patience to count the number of agencies: Water, schools, pollution control, roads, housing, transit - you name it, and it has dibs on a portion of California's debt.

By the way, California's debt is not particularly bloated considering who we are. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger was great as the Terminator, but his promise to cut waste was simply political rhetoric. He can't be blamed for failing to cut waste where there isn't much.

Tracey Gordon of the University of Maryland looked at the average growth in state spending over the past 30 years, and guess what - it has been fairly stable.

Gordon notes that California "is a huge enterprise. There's stability in spending from year to year because of fixed costs, contracts and political pressure for things people want like schools, roads and prisons."

This is where the gridlock engendered by the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature concur on the budget becomes destructive, leading to a low bond rating that in turn cripples the state.

If the concept of a super-majority to pass necessary funding for matters such as education and roads doesn't work anywhere else but in Rhode Island - a state also in distress - why should it work here?

So how did we get here? In the midst of the Great Depression the good people of California decided if in any year the budget grew by 5 percent, then a two-thirds majority would be required to pass the new budget. Fair enough.

It was not until the 1960s that misguided politicians convinced Californians to drop the 5 percent rule so a super-majority would always be required to pass a budget.

In 1996 the bipartisan California Constitution Revision Commission recommended a return to majority rule, noting: "(the) state's population with its varied public service needs continues to grow while the resources needed to provide services do not."

However, California's coffers were flush with revenues from the technology and housing booms, and the recommendations were ignored.

And so in 2009, with a Great Recession upon us and appallingly shrinking revenues, the state found itself in deep financial trouble.

The people still needed roads, schools, prisons and water, and most elected representatives responded. But to get to the magic two-thirds, a minority demanded what the majority saw as unconscionable. Once again gridlock ensued.

The only argument for keeping the two-thirds majority rule for the budget is that it is an opportunity for the minority to keep the majority in line.

Guess what? We live in a democracy. We're supposed to vote out of office those who are not responsive. Representatives will always be looking over their shoulders because they want to stay in office.

But with majority rule, they will not be obligated to violate their constituents' wishes on the backs of children, the poor and the disenfranchised. Then, maybe just maybe, California will be able to crawl out of this morass.

Diana Shaw, is an SCV resident, an entertainment attorney, elected member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee and a founding member of Santa Clarita's Democratic Alliance for Action. Her column reflects her ownviews and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several Democratic writers.


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