Tag Archives: 2/3 requirement

John Garamendi Becomes First Prominent Dem To Endorse Lakoff Initiative Concept

John Garamendi appeared on Angie Coiro’s Live From The Left Coast with Professor George Lakoff and our own David Atkins to talk about the California Democracy Act, Lakoff’s one-line initiative which would change all legislative actions on budget and revenue to a majority vote.  Listen at around 13:00 for Garamendi’s remarks endorsing Lakoff’s approach.

Garamendi: Well, if you put a proposition or a Constitutional amendment on the ballot, and it says, gives the legislature a majority vote to raise taxes and a budget, or one or the other, it’s likely to be turned down. You know, that’s, the polling indicates that, there are issues that have come up before, there was one I think two years ago that was on the ballot, it was turned down (it was 2004 -ed.).  That was 55% for budgeting.  The fundamental problem is, we’re not framing the issue, we’re not putting the proper issue to the people, and I think that was the common error from just a moment ago.  If you make it about the budget, if you make it about taxes, I think you’re sure to lose.  If you make it about the very nature of democracy, all the way back to the Greek, the Greek civilization and the start of democracy, it was a majority.  It was a majority situation, and here we are in this day and age in America where we really have thrown majority out, and we, in California at least, we are faced with minority rule, and some would say the tyranny of the minority.  Which is exactly what’s happened in the last two or three decades now, when it’s come time for tight budgets and tight situations, urgency bills, as well as budget or tax bills.  So I think we need to have a new discussion about what is the nature of our democracy.

While not an explicit endorsement, this mirrors Lakoff’s theory on how to properly put together this kind of initiative.  The majority rule theory is fairly rooted in the American imagination, and that’s really the only way to explain this to people.  There isn’t enough of a sense that we have minority rule right now, and that this tyranny of the minority is largely the cause of the state’s dysfunction over the last several decades.  This is more than anything an education project, and Garamendi appears to understand it.

We’re a democracy, we elected these people, let them do their jobs, and if we don’t like what they do, we’ll throw them out the next election.

Majority rule is an accountability measure.  People currently have everyone and no one to blame for the problems of the state.  Democrats can blame the rules, Republicans can blame the Democrats.  Majority rule would make things much clearer for the public.

This is an important turning point, to have someone like Garamendi openly siding with the concept of the Lakoff initiative in what is fast becoming a grassroots/establishment split.  The folks at CA Majority Rule are still raising money for a poll to prove their concept as one that can work with voters.  I suggest you give it strong consideration.

Will The Spotlight Ever Fall On Jerry Brown’s Ideas, Not His Image?

(Attorney General Brown formally filed to open an exploratory committee for Governor today.)

With the Rasmussen poll numbers filtering through the traditional media, the idea of Jerry Brown being the favorite at this moment to return to the Governor’s mansion is taking hold outside of California. Talking Points Memo has a piece marveling at how strange it is to see the “colorful” Brown back in this position, recalling the time-worn stories about Linda Ronstadt and “Governor Moonbeam,” although they do acknowledge that “this all contributed to a somewhat inaccurate caricature of him as a left-winger.”  Indeed, the TPM profile notes that Brown was a fiscal conservative in office and ran on the flat tax in 1992.  Clearly, the author was informed by Joe Mathews’ cover story in this month’s American Prospect, which delves further into Brown’s un-campaign for Governor and the puzzling question of what in the heck he’s planning to do once he gets there:

But a little talk about the big picture is in order. Outside Brown’s news conferences, California is coming undone. This summer, unemployment reached 11.9 percent. Tens of billions of dollars have been cut from the budget in the past year. Thousands of teachers have been laid off. State offices are now closed three Fridays a month. University tuition has been hiked. Thousands of elderly and disabled people are losing their state-provided health insurance.

The crisis is so profound that it may present an opportunity for California to fix its badly broken government. Coalitions on the left and in the center (the right is sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the Armageddon) are drafting plans to change the way the state is governed. They hope to get several measures on the 2010 ballot that would reshape the state budget, call a state constitutional convention, and perhaps unwind much of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that severely limited the government’s ability to raise taxes — a major contributing factor to the budget hole California finds itself in today.

If any candidate should be talking about this, it’s Jerry Brown. After all, Prop. 13 passed during his governorship. But Brown has yet to engage the would-be reformers. In the rare moments when he’s asked how the state might be fixed, he talks vaguely of the need to forge compromise and invokes older, better times in California, when he and his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, were in power. “We can talk about ‘restoring the dream,'” he told a union conference in Palo Alto during an explicitly political appearance this summer. “Well, I was around when the dream was here.”

This is a dodge — not only of the present questions about what he might do as governor but also of lasting concerns about Brown’s own role in diminishing the California dream. Pat Brown was a great builder of the highways and waterways and schools that made the state prosperous, but his son Jerry announced “an era of limits.” Since that declaration 33 years ago, the state’s population has grown from 22 million to more than 38 million. The state government has not kept up. If Brown has specific ideas on what to do about all of this, he is keeping them to himself.

Brown clearly has a blueprint for winning the election – say as little as humanly possible about the problems that grip the state, and hope that tangerine dreams of the halcyon 70s push him to victory.  You cannot blame him – it’s a winning formula.  With a pathetically thin state political media, it’s fairly difficult to run on any issues to begin with, at least ones beyond the bumper-sticker variety.  Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected by saying pretty much nothing that wouldn’t fit as a movie slogan, and a celebrity-obsessed media let him get away with it.  So I don’t begrudge Brown the lack of specifics.  That’s the way the game has been played in recent years.

Indeed, I don’t worry about what we don’t know about Brown, but what we do know.

Progressives, both then and now, argue that Brown’s brand of anti-government liberalism fueled the Prop. 13 fire. If government isn’t all that important, what does it matter if you cut taxes? Brown had frozen highway construction, criticized funding for adult education and food stamps, and slashed social services. “I am going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms,” he said in one encounter with reporters.

What reforms, governor?

“I don’t know yet.” […]

Brown, in the midst of running for re-election, called himself a “born-again tax cutter” and immediately reinvented himself as Prop. 13’s champion. (He maintains now that he had to support 13 after its victory because of his oath to defend the state constitution.) Brown went so far as to befriend the legislation’s co-sponsor, the anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis. “It seemed like he went over to Jarvis’ house frequently,” says Joel Fox, who would later serve as an aide to Jarvis. “Mrs. Jarvis would tell stories about serving lunch to the governor with Howard in his pajamas. Howard voted for him for re-election because Jerry convinced him he would implement Prop. 13 in the right spirit.”

As it happens, the only thing worse than Prop. 13 itself was its implementation. Brown and the legislature bailed out cities and counties that lost revenues under the law — and thus established the dysfunctional system of budgeting that plagues California to this day. Tax and spending decisions once made by city councils and school boards were centralized in Sacramento. The state Capitol became a giant piggy bank, with interests on the right and left using lobbying muscle — and the initiative process — to carve out special protections for their funds, leaving less for broad public investments. At the rare moments when Democrats tried to make such investments, Prop. 13’s two-thirds requirement for taxes allowed Republicans, even when they were in the minority, to block them.

Indeed, the Jerry Brown of recent public comments shows no sign of understanding the present state of the state.  He has supported the current Governor in various accounting tricks and tough-on-crime stances that have blown a hole in the deficit.  He has stated an unwillingness to take a leadership position on any even remotely controversial issue.  He hasn’t strayed from that “born-again tax-cutter” mantra.  As our own Robert Cruickshank says in this very good article:

“The problem with Brown is that I’m not convinced he’s moved past 1978,” says Robert Cruickshank, who works for the progressive 700,000-member network Courage Campaign and is a frequent contributor to the blog Calitics. “The lesson he drew from that is that he has to adapt to a more conservative reality. … I’m concerned that it’s not going to be the kind of governorship where you see significant changes in the way California operates.”

If this is the Jerry Brown we can expect to “lead” in 2010, I know that progressives will have far better outlets for their advocacy, be it the Lakoff Initiative or the Constitutional convention.  As I’ve said many times, you could elect Noam Chomsky governor and he would still be constrained by the same structural factors that resist true democracy and responsible governance.  And Jerry Brown is most certainly no Noam Chomsky.

The Real Story On The Lakoff Initiative

(There’s an Act Blue page soliciting funds to take a poll on the Lakoff Initiative)

You may have seen me live-tweeting the events last night at SEIU Local 721 in LA, where Professor George Lakoff and the folks behind CA Majority Rule met with around 200 activists, union members, elected officials, legislative candidates, representatives from Speaker Bass’ office, and more, to talk about the just-released proposed November 2010 initiative on majority rule.  If you read through both the live tweets and Dante Atkins’ notes on the meeting, I think you get a picture of a potential split inside the California Democratic Party, one that could have major implications for all elections next year.

It should be noted that CDP Vice-Chair Eric Bauman was there to offer support.  He gave a typical stump speech and said very plainly that “the reason you’re here tonight is the solution” to the problems that grip the state, problems he laid out very carefully and completely.  He was honest in saying that any Democrat who opposes this kind of measure will be told that “vertebra are available for installation… I think the chiropractor’s lobby can help us with that.”  He made clear that we don’t have a spending problem, “we have a common sense problem,” and he pushed everyone in the room to work toward a real solution.

But Professor Lakoff’s speech seemed to capture the dynamic between the grassroots and the establishment much better.  Lakoff opened by talking about the origins of the initiative that he filed yesterday:

I got into this last spring when Lonnie Hancock invited me to speak to a group of State Senators.  And I said, what’s the problem, you’re the majority!  And they said they don’t have any power.  And they explained the whole 2/3rds rule, and how the leadership has to work with them because we want to lose as little as possible.

And I asked, why aren’t you in every assembly district explaining this problem?  It’s about schools, healthcare, everything, and there’s no answer.  I went back and said that there’s something really wrong.  Its name is democracy […] Which is more Democratic?  Majority rule, or minority rule?  You knew the answer from the 3rd grade on.  Even Republicans know the answer but they don’t like to.  We know there will be a blowback if we try to change things, but the hardest blowback is coming from our side.  The reason that Loni Hancock invited me was that there was a  poll done by a progressive organization, and it asked the wrong question.

This is my business.  Studying language and the framing behind language.  If someone presented you with the poll question: would you rather have more taxes and higher services, or fewer taxes and less services.  Obviously, it went with the latter.  And the legislature concluded that they shouldn’t put anything about taxes on the 2010 ballot.  Why do they think that?  Because they think that polls are objective, and that language just floats out there.  They’re wrong.  Language is not neutral.  There’s a truth here that that language hides.  It’s the truth that we don’t have Democracy in this state.  We have minority rule.

In response, because nobody else would do so, Lakoff’s initiative reads: “All Legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by majority vote.”  It’s tweetable and it’s fairly simple to understand.  It’s framed as a democratic action to return the state to democratic rule.  And it appeals very much to those interested in preserving democracy.

Which is the consensus opinion inside the Democratic Party.  We know this because, back in July, the state party passed a resolution calling for majority rule for budget and revenue.  And it didn’t pass with contentious debate – it passed unanimously.  One of the very few people to speak out against it was the Party Chair, John Burton.  But the rank and file supported it utterly.

It was something of a reversal for Burton, who when he was trying to get the votes of those rank and file supported a majority vote position.  Now he’s seen some polls and decided to take half a bite out of the apple.  Lakoff described his exceedingly short meeting with Burton last night.

Burton wouldn’t talk to me for more than a minute.  He just said that he saw the polls, and it said 55% on budget and nothing on taxes.  How many of you were at the state convention?  You voted on a resolution about this.  How did that resolution come before you?  The resolutions committee.  And that was the point.  We got the resolutions committee to do it and got a standing ovation.  The rank and file Democrats know it’s the right thing to do and they have to tell their leaders.  So how do you change this?  You have to have a poll, but you have to have pressure.  The major donors have to call Burton and say, if you want any money from me, you get behind this.  And he has to hear that from donor after donor and organization after organization.  We have to win in our own party first.  I think John Burton is a good person, same with Bass and Steinberg.  It’s the good people that we have to win over first.

Later, a woman from AFSCME asserted that Willie Pelote was willing to give $1 million dollars to a majority vote campaign until Burton called him and told him to forget it.

You can argue about what the most effective approach is to deal with California’s budget dysfunction.  We’ve been doing that all week.  You could say that leaders must prepare the ground by tying things Californians want to revenue, and tell the story of Republicans thwarting the popular will.  You can say that we need to throw out the Constitution and move straight to a convention.  But what becomes incredibly clear is that there is a groundswell of support inside the party for a simple move to restore democracy to the state, and if the establishment in Sacramento rejects that, in particular John Burton, the subsequent outrage will have a major impact on grassroots support for all Democratic candidates next year.  There’s just no question about this.  The grassroots already feels disrespected and abused by the leadership.  They got Hillary Crosby into a statewide officer position based on just this kind of frustration.  They feel that one of the richest economies in the world is run like a third-world country, and they know that they will never change that when procedural rules force Democrats into a defensive crouch, where they see their role as losing as little as possible.  This split will grow and branch out into statewide officer races, legislative races, etc.  The grassroots workhorses won’t be very inclined to work so hard for a Party that disrespects them and fails to act in their stated interests.  Not to mention the fact that everyone knows that, while we wait another Friedman Unit until the electorate figures out the problem on their own, people will suffer from budget cuts, people will go bankrupt, and people will die.

The CA Majority Rule team has a multi-pronged strategy.  One, they are raising money for this poll, to try and prove that a properly framed set of questions will elicit the desired results.  Two, they will put Speaker’s Bureaus together in every district in California with people who can talk about majority rule and restoring democracy, complete with real-world examples of the fruit of the state’s dysfunction.  Three, they will seek to pass endorsements of the one-line majority rule initiative in every Democratic club and county committee in California.  There’s an executive board meeting coming up in November where this will probably come to a crescendo, too.

The real story of the Lakoff initiative is a story about rank and file Democrats wanting their leaders to follow their will.  You can argue about tactics or strategy or approach, but that’s what it boils down to.  And the party leadership had better take heed.

The Friedman Unit Strategy For Perpetual Minority Rule

The deadline for filing an initiative that would make the November 2010 ballot is Friday (Just a quick update to that: Friday is a suggested deadline to maximize time for signature gathering) .  The initial measures to repeal the 2/3 ballot initiatives filed by Maurice Read failed at the end of July.  There is currently an initiative to lower the threshold from 2/3 to 3/5 in circulation, but it does not have any backing.

And that’s it.  There is no pending initiative regarding any two-thirds rule, with the institutional support needed to get on the ballot, and the deadline is Friday.

As has been mentioned in a Contra Costa Times article, the political leadership in the CDP appears to be moving away from it.

A split between Democratic activists and the political pros who run the party may be growing over how to approach the issue that has bedeviled the party for years: the two-thirds vote required to pass taxes and budgets in the Legislature.

Most Democrats in the upper echelons of the party apparatus are convinced it’s a fool’s errand to try to persuade voters to hand the majority party unchecked power to raise taxes. Instead, they’re gearing up for a campaign next year to lower the threshold – from two-thirds of both legislative bodies to a simple majority – on budget votes only, a path they believe voters can embrace.

But some grass roots liberals say they’re frustrated with the caution of party leaders and believe, if sold right, voters would hand over both taxing and budgeting powers to the majority party.

“This is a doable thing, but it requires getting Democrats together and deciding to really do it,” said George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguistics professor who has become a de facto leader of the cause and is preparing to submit by next week a ballot measure for the November 2010 election that would drop the two-thirds requirement on both taxes and budgets. “Either they want to give the state a future or they can let Republicans continue pushing it into disaster.” […]

But party leaders see him as quixotic, and dismiss his position as misplaced and uninformed.

“People are not ready to pass it,” said John Burton, the Democratic party chairman and a former Senate leader. “He’s got a theory. Good luck to him.”

Mind you, that another guy had a theory before he entered the CDP Chairmanship: John Burton.  At the time he committed himself to repealing the 2/3 majority for the budget and taxes, and listed it as a top priority.  But I don’t even know that the Burton fallback position is being considered; as of now, they have a little over 48 hours to file a 2/3 repeal on the budget.  And of course, this would immediately put half of what a budget is – revenues – off-limits, while taking responsibility for bad budgets that cannot be fixed.

What I have heard now is that, with statewide offices being decided in 2010, party leaders don’t want to put revenue on the ballot and increase GOP turnout against it, threatening their statewide officer candidates.

This is nothing more than a Friedman Unit strategy.  We cannot put such a proposal on the ballot in 2010 because it might hurt candidates, so we move it to the next election.  Which has candidates in it as well, so we have to just hold off past 2012.  But our Governor’s up for re-election/trying to defeat the Republican in 2014, so we have to hold off then, too.  As a result, nothing proceeds.

And it’s worse than that.  We hear constantly that the public is not ready for a conversation about changing the rule, but in the meantime nothing is being done to prepare the ground for that shift in public opinion.  It’s not that we have to give the war a few more months to succeed, as in the Friedman Unit; it’s that we have to give NOTHING more time for voters to, I guess, come up with their own ideas about state government.

The inescapable conclusion you must come to is that everyone in the system actually likes the system as it is. For Democrats, they personally prosper by getting elected and re-elected, and they can always blame the 2/3 rule for whatever failures occur. It’s accountability-free government complete with a scapegoat, and it rocks their world.

We can talk about how Democratic leaders tend to view the electorate as static and unchangeable, rather than the starting point from where opinion can be shaped.  We can talk about how small-bore goals or a major crisis can provide the spark for the change the state so desperately needs.  But this isn’t a failure of imagination.  It’s a general contentment with the status quo.

Which is why change will have to be imposed upon the system from the outside.  The most intriguing initiatives to date are the one pushed by Lenny Goldberg to repeal the $2 billion dollar a year corporate tax breaks, and the proposal for a Constitutional convention (though that has also not gone into circulation by the Bay Area Council, but only through an independent effort from Paul Currier).  This obviously cannot be left to anyone in Sacramento – they will always find a convenient excuse for delay.

Palace Sentries Dispatched To Guard The Drawbridge

The establishment in Sacramento has manned the barricades, battened down the hatches and gone on the offensive to prove their own worth.  They sent their best man in the media, George Skelton, out to prove that no, despite your lying eyes, the California Legislature had a real banner year.  After all, they managed to bring suffering to the lives of hundreds of thousands of state residents with consensus and bipartisan elan!

The current Legislature, regardless of Duvall and despite ideological polarization, has had a better year than it’s getting credit for.

Its main accomplishment was keeping the state afloat amid a flood of red ink, created primarily by the toughest economic times since the Great Depression. OK, so it did use some bailing wire and chewing gum! The bills got paid, even if briefly with IOUs.

With great difficulty and pain — at least for Democrats — the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed programs by roughly $30 billion. They also struck a major blow against “auto-pilot” spending by permanently eliminating all automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments, except for K-12 schools. And they summoned enough courage to temporarily increase taxes by $12.5 billion.

In the end, they found a way to restore health insurance for 660,000 low-income kids.

The tax increases hit the more vulnerable elements of society disproportionately, of course.  They actually found that way to restore children’s health insurance by lowering industry taxes and increasing the co-pay and deductible burden on the low-income families themselves, while reducing the covered care.  And anyone who adds cutting $30 billion in programs and eliminating COLA as an accomplishment is a bit of a social deviant.  But there are probably no lengths to which Skelton will go to defend the palace walls from the rabble who think, based on the evidence, that the system is horribly broken.

Steve Maviglio wisely steers clear of the more horrific achievements of this year’s Legislature, and offers a slightly more defensible outlook of the ’09 Legislative session.  Still, there’s a lot unsaid:

Looking back, getting the measures on the May ballot was a significant early success that required 2/3 votes. And toward the end of the session, in addition to the renewable energy bill, Speaker Bass pushed through measures on childrens health and domestic violence that won broad bipartisan support. (The Speaker also got a standing ovation, and she appears to have strengthened her support in Caucus. Compare that to the ouster of the two Republican leaders).

Okay, so the grand water deal didn’t get done. Big deal. Nothing like that has been done for a generation. Perhaps Senate President pro Tem Steinberg set the bar too high when he said he’d get it done. In any case, all parties agree that they got close and can pick up the pieces and get it finished in short order.

So for all those crying for major reforms, put it all into perspective. Sure, improvements could be made, and things could have been better, but this is not reason for drastic action. Far from it.

Of course, the renewable bill is veto bait, as are many of the other major bills pending the Governor’s signature.  And the domestic violence bill didn’t pass the Senate, so, um, that doesn’t count.  The prison bill offered decent parole reforms but stopped well short of a real solution.  Everyone keeps saying the water bill will happen but the two sides remain far apart, and the fact that they’ll have to go into overtime to reconcile it kind of proves the point, no?

But Maviglio tips his hand with the line “this is not reason for drastic action.”  Of course he would say that.  He’s profited well from the status quo.  Anything that messes with it could hurt him professionally, and what’s more, could stop the endless blaming of outside factors to account for stunning failure.

There is no shame in stating that this was a failed legislative session.  Just about everyone in California would agree with you, particularly the ones who are suffering the most from the destruction of social insurance caused by the most heartless cuts.  Simply put, the Great Recession dominated legislative activity, and the conservative veto from various 2/3 requirements restricts the Legislature from fulfilling the expressed will of the people through their votes (NOTE: This does not only come into play with the budget; late last Friday Republicans blocked over 20 bills that required 2/3 votes for one reason or another, probably because they knew they could get away with it).  That’s not something to explain away, it’s actually something to fight, every single day until the problem is rectified.

Skelton and Maviglio may want to tell themselves all is well, but the public knows better, and they’re going to demand major structural change.  Those who think that the Legislature can still be a force for good in the state can get aboard and provide the best ideas to break the supermajority gridlock and get the state moving again.  Or they can defend their narrow interests.  Their defense will fail, and it would be a shame not to see them on the right side of history.

Yacht Party Member Equal In Value To An Empty Chair

As Robert notes in an update, OC Assemblyman and noted utility lobbyist spanker Mike Duvall resigned his seat effective immediately.

Looking past for a moment the hilariousness of the family values Republican bragging about his multiple mistresses, and the very serious allegations of sex-for-favors with lobbyists, which should be investigated by the Ethics Committee and state prosecutors, there’s a point to be made about the 2/3 requirement here.

Duvall’s resignation reduces the number of lawmakers in the Assembly by one.  Democrats now hold 50 seats, Republicans 28, with Juan Arambula as a Dem-leaning independent.  However, because you need 2/3 voting affirmatively to pass a budget or tax increases, not 1/3 voting negatively to block it, this changes nothing in Sacramento.  Duvall’s seat being empty is pretty much the same as him voting no on everything.  So unless Democrats can capitalize and win the seat (and I highly doubt it in that district), it’s not useful from a voting perspective.  

Just thought you should know, being a Yacht Party member is literally the same as not existing.

UPDATE by Robert: See the Courage Campaign’s press release, calling for the Attorney General to investigate this, in the comments.

A Budget Made Of Straw

Among the sketchiest of budget solutions passed last month was the plan to sell the State Compensation Insurance Fund for $1 billion dollars.  This would be a perfect plan, if anybody actually wanted to buy it.  But they don’t, and so later this year, there will be this $1 billion dollar hole in the budget, and oh-so-sincere Yacht Party types will assume that it’s just the cause of overspending, or something.

“This isn’t going to happen any time in the next three to four years because there would be one court case, if not many,” said Frank Neuhauser, a University of California, Berkeley, researcher and expert on workers’ compensation. “There’s no money coming from this in the short term that would resolve a budget problem. I think it’s no better than smoke and mirrors.”

The list of problems with the proposed sale is long.

The authorizing bill requires that State Fund’s board of directors agree that assets identified by the state are appropriate to sell. Whether that gives the board veto power is already under dispute, a key point since the board opposes any sale.

The board’s right, by the way, since the only way you could sell off any of the assets of the worker’s compensation insurer of last resort is by selling off low-risk policies to private interests, essentially saddling the SCIF with the worst policies and driving premiums up.  This from the Governor who supposedly “slashed” worker’s comp.

Meanwhile, there’s this inconvenient set of facts:

A major question is whether the state even owns State Fund assets. Policyholders likely would argue that the assets belong to them, not the state.

When Colorado lawmakers this year attempted to take $500 million from its workers’ compensation fund, Colorado’s attorney general concluded the money was not the state’s to take and would incur extensive litigation. A Utah judge in 2005 ruled that Utah likewise had no ownership in its workers’ compensation fund “other than as a policyholder.”

“I don’t see where that money is the state’s to take,” said Neuhauser, the UC Berkeley workers’ compensation expert. “When the reserves are more than necessary, they are given back as dividends. I’ve always thought of that as the employers’ money and never understood how it’s possible the state could sell it.”

We see here, once again, the practice of breaking the law to balance the budget.  Because the Yacht Party refuses to properly fund government, and because the current rules allow them a minority veto, the only avenues left are raiding special funds and illegal or unworkable gimmicks.  It’s a budget built of straw.

(By the way, John Chiang, attributing the problem to “irresponsible spending” doesn’t really help matters)

What A Constitutional Convention Means To Me

People seemed to really engage with this post about a Constitutional convention, so I wanted to follow up with some of my thoughts for what a convention could tackle and what it could look like.  As it happens I attended a town hall meeting about a proposed ConCon a couple weeks ago in Santa Monica, featuring Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council, Steven Hill and Mark Paul of the New America Foundation, Asm. Julia Brownley (AD-41), Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor and LA City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

At the root, a Constitutional convention must concern itself with restoring confidence in government.  Right now, that’s at an all-time low, especially after budget agreements hashed out in secret that defy the will of the people and an erosion in the public trust in lawmakers to do the right thing in Sacramento.  Government is not responsive, in fact in many cases it cannot Constitutionally be responsive to the popular will.  The institutions have become paralyzed and captive to special interest lobbying.  We have ten lobbyists for every legislator in Sacramento.  And we have turned over the reins to a new branch of government, the ballot, and anything significant must be mandated by a vote of the people.  As Julia Brownley, now in her second term, said, “Government structure is broken and we need to fix it… I didn’t understand until I set foot in the Legislature the paralysis and gridlock that kills the system.”  I think Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who is carrying Constitutional convention legislation in the Senate, put it well when he said that California remains at the vanguard with anything that can be accomplished on a majority-vote basis.  Anything with a 2/3 threshold, in other words anything fiscal, is a mess. And it needs to be solved.

So how would a convention, the first of its kind since 1879, be structured? (flip)

 Right now, only the Legislature, with a 2/3 vote, can call for one.  But the Bay Area Council and others who have studied this believe they can go to the ballot with two measures – one changing the Constitution to allow the people to call for a convention, and another to call for one.  These can even be accomplished on the same ballot; while some have raised legal objections to this, this is pretty much how a recall election works, with the recall and replacement on the same ballot.  Those who want to maintain the status quo because it works for them may disagree, but the California Supreme Court has clearly shown very wide latitude on votes of the people under the current system.

Other major issues to be hashed out with a convention are the scope and the delegate selection.  Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council has said that everything within government should be on the table, which worries some that a Pandora’s box will be open, an opportunity to mess with fundamental rights.  First of all, that’s the case right now, as last November proved.  Second, I do believe there would be eventual problems with any document that nullified rights granted by the federal Constitution (the basis of the current Prop. 8 lawsuit).  What we’re really talking about with a convention is a process to create a more sustainable structure, dealing with electoral issues, governance issues, fiscal/budget issues, and direct democracy issues.  That’s a fair bit of territory, and I don’t see any need to expand beyond that.

Then there’s the thorny issue of delegate selection.  Steven Hill explains in a study of the issue that there are three basic means for selecting delegates: through appointments, through elections, or through a random selection consistent with state demographics.  There are plusses and minuses to all of them, but Hill reasons that the appointment process could wind up looking like patronage, and the election process mired by our useless campaign finance laws.  Both would fall to the whims of the current broken process and could be hijacked by special interests seeking input in the results of a convention.  They would also wind up looking a lot like the Legislature, which doesn’t go far to renewing confidence and trust in government.  So Hill falls on the side of random selection as the “least worst” option.

Pros: Random selection would be the best method for ensuring a representative body; random selection of “average citizens” brings a sense of grassroots legitimacy to the process, which would give the proposals of the constitutional convention credibility with the voters; random selection might be the best process for shielding delegates against special interest influence; random selection has the gloss of being something new and different, never been tried, and therefore may have the greatest potential to capture the imagination of the public and the media.

Cons: Random selection of “average citizens” would not necessarily guarantee sufficient expertise on the part of the delegates. A thorough educational process would be necessary, and it would be important that the educational process for delegates was designed to prevent “capture” by any particular special interest or perspective. The selection process would also need to weed out any delegates who are not are sufficiently committed to participate for many months.

I don’t think capturing the imagination of the media is a good reason to do it, but Hill has cited examples of citizen’s commissions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in New York City dealing with the World Trade Center redevelopment, with fairly positive reviews.

I think where you fall along these lines can be best determined by your theories of government.  If you think that the system needs to be gamed for particular outcomes, you probably want an election that would allow the participation of various special interests.  If you believe that good government and progressive government are analogous, that an iron-clad structure itself need not be partisan, but just allow the prevailing philosophy of the majority to have sway over the results, you may be interested in a random selection based on demographics (and, I would add, party ID).  Right now, we have a progressive legislature and a conservative system, which frustrates efforts at accountability.  A small-d democratic system would not only be more fair than the current system of minority rule, and it would not only be more helpful for the voters trying to determine who is responsible for what happens in government, but it would actually be more fiscally responsible.  The Two Santa Claus Theory that dictates we can have robust services and endlessly low taxes forces government to resort to borrowing and accounting gimmicks to cover deficits, which lead to larger deficits pushed out to the future.  Spending mandates like Prop. 98 haven’t even worked to protect school funding – we’ve become the worst state on spending K-12 under that mandate.  A clear set of rules that resists enshrining policy but allows policy to work unimpeded through a framework of government seems to be the best practice here.

Then there’s our failed experiment with direct democracy, which brought about many of the constrictions under which current government now labors, such as the crazy 2/3 requirements, which allow the majority to say that the minority blocks their wishes while allowing the minority to claim that they have no power because they’re in the minority.

What do I think a Constitutional convention needs to include?

• ending the 2/3 requirements and restoring democracy to the fiscal process over the tyranny of the minority, and returning decisions for spending and taxation to elected representatives

• two-year budget cycles and performance-based budgeting to try and engender a long-term approach

• indirect democracy, where the legislature can either work out the item on the ballot with proponents and pass it through their chamber, or amend items that reach the ballot.  In addition, we need a higher barrier for Constitutional amendments and changes to the process of signature gathering.

• any ballot-box budgeting must include a dedicated funding source – “paygo for initiatives”

• smaller legislative districts, either by expanding the Assembly or moving to a unicameral legislature with 150 or more members.

• elimination of the current term limits, the tighest in the nation, with more of a happy medium

• instant runoff voting for state legislative vacancies to speed the process of filling them

• local government gets the local resources they collect without them routing through Sacramento

Those are a few of the things I’d like to see addressed, and I’m sure people have additional ones.  The crisis we currently have in California presents an opportunity for new thinking about government and how to manage the largest state in the union and one of the largest economies in the world.  Despite the doom and gloom, California retains its vibrancy, its diversity, its abundance.  Only the structure under with it governs itself has failed, and that failure has seeped into everyday life.  Lifting that structure will be like lifting a heavy weight off the backs of the citizenry.  We can lead a path to a better future.

Related – Repair California

The Conservative Vision Of A Constitutional Convention

In the wake of the latest, but by no means the last, budget mess in California, I continue to believe that the only way to break the deeply negative cycle of fiscal dysfunction and budgetary gridlock is through a Constitutional convention that restores democracy and provides sensible, workable government in the state of California.  You’ll be interested to know that this belief actually transcends party lines.  Tom Karako directs the Golden State Center at the Claremont Institute, one of the nation’s most conservative think tanks.  And even he agrees that the state’s Constitution needs to change to better serve the public.  I haven’t previously seen a conception of what a conservative vision for a Constitutional convention would look like, and so I think it’s worth analyzing it to see their preferred options.  Karako first says:

If Californians do rewrite the Constitution, it should be revised to resemble more closely the concise federal Constitution: more responsible legislators and executives, stronger control of the bureaucracy and less direct democracy.

Then he comes up with several issues that appear nowhere in the federal Constitution.  Here are his six proposals:

1. Part-time Legislature

2. Hard spending cap

3. Two-year budgeting cycle

4. Eliminate the two-thirds supermajority requirement for budgets

5. Unified executive branch

6. Repeal ballot-box budgeting

The first four are either irrelevant to the federal Constitution or in direct conflict to federal Constitutional provisions.  But I will soldier on and take them in kind.

Karako clarifies that his vision of a “part-time legislature” would not be a citizen legislature, and would include the same salaries and responsibilities as today.  With all due respect, then, we already have this.  State legislative sessions, in theory, open in January and end on August 31, and there are numerous recesses in between those dates.  The only reason it seems lately like the legislature is always at work is because four extraordinary sessions have been called in the past year and a half to deal with the budget mess.  Our legislature works around six months out of the year in less extraordinary circumstances.  That sounds part-time to me.

This notion of a hard spending cap has been soundly rejected by the voters twice in the past four years.  It is certainly not a feature of the federal Constitution, and it does not take into account emergency spending needs, the outpacing of inflation over wages in areas like health care, and multiple other provisions.  States with spending caps have seen their quality of life suffer and their state rankings plummet (see TABOR in Colorado).  This would in my view be disastrous, and obviously it’s the major bone of contention between liberals and conservatives.

A two-year budget cycle actually sounds prudent to me.  I would supplement it with an advisory long-term budgeting benchmark that would bring the concept of long-term planning back into state government, but anything that looks beyond the horizon could improve the quality of state budgets.

Conservatives have begun to relent on the 2/3 rule for passing a state budget, while keeping in the requirement for taxes, for somewhat selfish reasons.  I agree that the current system eliminates accountability for both sides of the aisle, and letting the majority rule on these issues would allow the people to decide the results of that course of action.  But Karako doesn’t take this to the logical conclusion, that a budget is composed of taxes and spending, and that only with a full repeal of both of these 2/3 provisions would we have representative democracy in this state.  He wants to hold one party responsible for budgeting while tying their hands on how to go about instituting that budget.

After citing positively how other states have part-time legislatures, and negatively how only two other states require a 2/3 vote to pass a budget, Karako calls for a “unified executive branch” without mentioning that practically no other state has its Governor appoint all additional Constitutional officers.  Some states have Governors appoint certain various members, but not the entire slate.  This and the next idea show a typical conservative contempt for the will of the people.  Democracy, even direct democracy, is not the problem with California.  (This “unified executive branch” is also a cover for vesting greater authority in the executive to engage in, as Karako says, “firing and controlling non-elected bureaucrats and public employee unions,” or union-busting, in the vernacular.)

And that leads us to Karako’s idea to repeal all ballot-box budgeting, where he does not specify between different types of ballot-box budgeting.  Those measures with funding sources provide no strain on the budget process because they do not impact the General Fund.  Unfunded mandates do represent a problem, and reformers have devised a solution, essentially “paygo” for ballot initiatives, requiring that they include a funding source before presenting them to voters.  Karako, instead, wants to repeal all voter-approved measures and place them under the General Fund.  I also believe in the indirect initiative, allowing the legislature a crack at either passing a ballot measure themselves in consultation with the proponents, or changing the language with amendments to better reflect current priorities.

On one thing I agree with Karako; “California needs constitutional reform before we can expect sustained fiscal reform.”  I don’t think his ideas hold to his belief in drawing on the wisdom of the US Constitution; however, I do see some common ground, on two-year budget cycles, on the need for democratic rule, on initiative reform.  My belief is that a Constitutional convention could bring together the entire rich diversity of the state to discuss, debate and decide on these issues, coming to a decision that will improve representative government in the state.  I’ll see Mr. Karako there.

UPDATE by Robert: For a progressive vision of a constitutional convention, the Courage Campaign’s Citizens Plan to Reform California (CPR for California) is a good place to start. I plan to write more about it this week.

A Lawsuit Challenges The Two-Thirds Rule

It seems thirty years or so too late, but a former UCLA chancellor and director of the MOCA in Los Angeles named Charles Young filed suit against the provision in Proposition 13, passed in 1978, that requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise taxes.  The legal theory behind the case mirrors the theory behind the attempted repeal of Prop. 8 this year, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

The legal theory of the suit, which names the Legislature’s chief clerks as the technical defendants, is that when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, cutting property taxes and requiring a two-thirds vote for tax increases, it was a “revision” of the state constitution rather than an “amendment.”

The constitution allows amendments to be made by initiative petition but allows revisions – generally a more fundamental change – to be made only through a constitutional revision commission or a constitutional convention.

It’s essentially the same argument that opponents of Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that outlawed same-sex marriages, made in attempting to persuade the state Supreme Court to void that measure. But the court, which had earlier sanctioned same-sex marriages, ruled that Proposition 8 was valid.

I’m a bit surprised that Young didn’t include the single-subject rule in his charges, as the property tax rules and the two-thirds requirement for taxes don’t seem to bear much relationship to one another.  Of course, that has already been argued before the state Supreme Court, along with the revision argument, equal protection concerns and about a half-dozen other charges, four months after passage, in Amador Valley, and the Supreme Court upheld the initiative.  Here’s the way the revision argument played out back then.

The California Supreme Court held that although Proposition 13 would result in various substantial changes to the constitution, it was only an amendment because the changes were narrowly tailored to the objective of changing the taxation system. Id. at 228.  According to the Court, a change in the voting requirement did not amount to a revision of the constitution.  The Court further stated it was not uncommon to have similar voting requirements for financial matters, and that the Proposition would not effect home rule.  Id.  The Court cited Article XIII, Section 20 of the State Constitution that authorizes the legislature to set maximum property tax rates. Id. at 228.   The Court concluded this new article, implemented by Proposition 13, would be no more threatening to home rule than Article XIII, § 20. Id.  The Court, while not endorsing the Proposition, did state the initiative process was a direct form of government from the people. Id.  Finally, the court held that it would not limit the ability of people, through the initiative process, to achieve such a limited purpose of a new system of taxation. Id.

The Court upheld every aspect of Prop. 13 at that time, and the law has withstood multiple legal challenges over the years.  Like with Proposition 8, the Court seems loath to overturn a vote of the people, and now we’re 31 years down the road.  Of course, this forms the core of Charles Young’s argument, that the effects of Prop. 13 are powerful evidence that it is not merely an amendment, but a major revision affecting the lives of all California’s citizens.

I’m skeptical that this can get off the ground, but I see little harm in it.  And maybe putting Prop. 13 on trial, and laying out the effects in sharp detail, could lead to closing the loophole and building a sustainable revenue base.