Supermajority stew

The state’s budget presents a complex problem, and changing California’s budget process is about much more than just spending less or taxing more. Since the Depression-era Riley-Stewart amendment to the California Constitution, as tweaked by voters in 1962, the legislators have needed a two-thirds “supermajority” to pass a budget.

This has given us an annual betting pool as to whether or not legislators will make the deadline for a budget, but other than the opportunity for illicit odds-making, the results have become predictably nasty. In the best of times, Californians wait—and wait, and wait—for a final budget bill, usually brokered behind closed doors by the Big Five.

In the meantime, state vendors go without pay for goods and services provided to the state, sometimes for a few weeks and sometimes for months. These are often small businesses operated by our neighbors who must prepare annually for reduced cash flow that is entirely the result of budgetary infighting. No one suggests they aren’t due the money, but they still don’t get paid until the budget finally gets passed.

Then there are the state employees. These oft-maligned workers become annual scapegoats as budget negotiations drag on and on. The small industry of short-term loans that state workers require to get through the budget process isn’t exactly what most of us have in mind when we think of “creating business opportunities.”

Finally, there are the recipients of state services: the poor, sick, disabled and people who need to renew their driver’s licenses. It’s hard to equate going without life-saving medication with a forced delay in registering a new motorcycle, but those are among the victims of budget impasses.

While the goal of the supermajority requirement was to encourage bipartisan compromise for sensible budgets, it is apparent that the two-thirds requirement is a failure. It has, instead, opened the door to politicking and favor-brokering, as if politicians couldn’t have figured that out on their own. It gives a small group of legislators the extraordinary power to block budgets and shut down services. Rather than encourage fiscal responsibility, the requirement for a supermajority has led to one slapdash budget after another, passed late and with little in the way of careful thought.

What’s more, California remains one of only three states to require such a supermajority approval of the budget. The other two are Arkansas and Rhode Island, neither of which is nearly as big nor as complex as the Golden State.

Between budgeting by referendum, which has tied up state funds without consideration for changing priorities, and the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, California has been getting budgets that are remarkable only in their inability to deal squarely and sensibly with the needs of the state.

As part of a series of reforms that include redistricting, reform of the referendum process and reform of campaign finance, we need to get state budgeting back on track by eliminating the requirement for a supermajority. It’s just not sensible.