Majority rules (sort of): California’s Prop. 25

Earlier this week, I wrote about Propositions 20 and 27, which would change the process of redistricting in California. There is another measure on the ballot that also concerns the political process, in this case Proposition 25, which would alter the rules for passage of the state budget.

Currently, the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each house to pass a budget. Prop. 25 would allow each house of the legislature to pass the budget bill with a simple majority. Taxes would still require two thirds.

With the state regularly deadlocked thanks to the current minority-veto provision, this is a no-brainer. I will vote YES on 25, without hesitation.

Still, I wonder if the argument could be made that it would be worse to permit spending to pass by a majority, but tax increases only by 2/3, than to require the same size majority for both. Prop. 25 is a half measure, at best. But it is important to enhance the accountability of the legislative majority and reduce the minority veto power (independent of partisan control). This is long overdue.

11 thoughts on “Majority rules (sort of): California’s Prop. 25

  1. I suppose one might argue that it should be all-or-nothing: change both thresholds or change neither. But I think a more important argument for keeping super-majority rules is protection of the minority. In the absence of PR, that’s about the only check there is on the majority party. I think that one reason so many people cling to two-thirds and three-fifths requirements is that they don’t understand the effects of PR and/or don’t believe it is possible here.

    Having said that, I am voting “yes” on Prop. 25. Super-majority rules are entirely the wrong way to defend minority interests.

  2. I was thinking about whether a half-measure was better than no measure at all, and I concur with MSS–at a minimum the need to pass a budget sans a minority veto is a step in the right direction.

    If anything, the CA Assembly helps to continue to prove the importance of institutional design!

  3. I believe they did this only for the budget, not taxes, for two reasons:

    1. They were afraid of the single subject rule of initiatives, and the way the Supreme Court in California decides political issues in sometimes terribly political ways.

    2. They were also and probably even more afraid of people saying, “You’re going to kill Proposition 13 if you let a simple majority raise taxes in the legislature!” That will have to wait until (ahem) Governor Jerry Brown makes the speech about split roll property taxes, adding an oil depletion tax and raising the marginal state income tax to the same level as under Republican Pete Wilson. Not gonna happen? Who knows? Jerry is one of the gutsier politicians of the past forty years.

  4. I wonder if the passage of Proposition 25 will ultimately prove the most significant result of this election? Is the US obsession with gridlocked political institutions finally coming to an end? Or less grandly, perhaps the Democrats will notice that they just got defeated as much by supermajority requirements in the US senate as by anything else?

  5. The Prop. 25 result fits into the bigger picture of this election in the sense that we see continuation of the recent trend of increased polarization. California is actually more polarized than any state, or the nation as a whole, but with Democrats on top.

    The Republican wave was turned back at the California border. Brown easily won back the governorship, Boxer easily held on to the Senate seat, Democrats probably won all the other statewide offices (pending the outcome of the close race for Attorney General, where the Democrat leads). Democrats picked up at least one seat in the state legislature, while retaining one (and perhaps both) of their most vulnerable US House seats.

    In this context, it is rather unremarkable (which is not to say insignificant) that California’s Democratic electoral majority seized on the opportunity to remove the Republican veto over spending bills at the same time as it voted to restore unified state government.

    Nonetheless, it is also noteworthy that not only did Prop. 25 not change the existing two-thirds (minority veto) provision for tax increases, but the voters also extended it. With the passage of Prop. 26, now many “fees” that currently can be raised by simple majorities of the legislature are placed into the category of measures requiring two thirds.

  6. I read that Prop 26 came in under the radar to a certain extent. I’d hope sensible reformers would now be thinking about the tax and fees supermajorities as targets for next time around. I really cannot see how you can sensibly deal with expenditure and revenue by different majorities or why the opposition should be able to veto the actions of the majority on fiscal policy.

  7. The most silly thing about the Californian rule is that, while it requires a 2/3 majority to increase taxes, there only needs to be a simple majority to lower them. This asymmetry means that, if a small right-wing majority were elected, they could lower the tax rate, but if they are subsequently replaced by a small left-wing majority, they could not restore them back again. Kind of undemocratic!

  8. There’s an old joke that the US has one party that wants to raise less than it spends and one that wants to spend more than it raises, but the 2/3 up 1/2 down rule perfectly reflects the claims made by the US right that certain policies are inherently illegitimate. Raising revenue has somehow become an offence against the order of nature rather than a matter of balancing the budget or improving services.

  9. Norwegian Guy, outside the US, conservative parties have introduced new taxes (Thatcher’s poll tax, Mulroney’s GST, Howard’s VAT) that their opponents on the left opposed as regressive. However, of course, in the US, conservatism and anti-statism are so deeply (and uniquely) wedded that you are correct that “50% to lower or repeal a tax, 66.67% to create or raise one” does operate as a sort of Brezhnev Doctrine favouring the right over the left.

  10. Tom Round, I was just using right-wing as a shorthand for “politicians that want lower (or not increased) taxes”. Because, although Thatcher wanted a poll tax and the left opposed it, I’m pretty sure that Labour favoured a higher overall level of taxation then the Tories did, they just didn’t like this particular tax.

    Another thing is that everywhere I know of, including at the federal level in the US, it is much easier to adjust the tax level, including increasing it, than it is to change the constitution. But in California, you only need a simple majority in a referendum to change the constitution, whereas it requires a two-thirds majority to rise taxes. It’s usually the opposite.

  11. Norwegian Guy, that’s a very stipulative definition of “right-wing” and would exclude a number of undisputed “right-wingers” from Bismarck to Pauline Hanson.

    On the other hand, it would include Tom Paine.

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