Sunday, May 31, 2009




No sooner were the latest special election results in than the call went out from the left to dump California's requirement of a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature to pass a state budget.

Never mind that voters had just resoundingly defeated a tax extension plan that had barely won the needed two-thirds support from lawmakers. Never mind an April poll showing 70 percent of Californians want to keep the steep supermajority.

Asked what evidence there is that Californians want to get rid of the two-thirds rule for budgets, Rick Jacobs, chairman of the liberal Courage Campaign, which claims 700,000 members, came up with a complete non-sequitur:

"The special election had a very low turnout," he said. "The message there is that people don't feel things are democratic now."

That's supposed to indicate a groundswell of support for getting rid of the two-thirds barrier, which in recent years has let the relatively small Republican minority in the Legislature make tough demands that would have been laughed off without the rule?

And yet…there is no doubt the two-thirds rule produces perpetual late budgets and makes Sacramento decision-making more complex than in any other state capital. There is also some validity to the simple-majority argument, since that's what applies in almost every other matter except votes for tax increases both in local elections and the Legislature.

Let a simple majority decide matters, this argument goes, and if the voters don't like the result, they can throw the bums out.

This, of course, ignores the current gerrymandered political district lines that assure virtually no legislative seats ever change parties, even when incumbents are termed out. Only time will tell if the revised system for drawing district boundaries approved by voters last year will make much difference. Many demographers believe California's population is so clustered by ethnicity and political preference that even a complete change in how lines are drawn won't alter the party-line makeup of the Legislature.

Jacobs and others advocating an end to the two-thirds rule know they could change it via a ballot initiative, but they're not eager to try that route. Jacobs' excuse: "We need many changes and doing initiatives on one issue at a time may take too long." Translation: he knows a simple-majority proposition would lose.

But here's a plan that might win: Require only simple majorities to pass budgets that raise spending by no more than the percentage of population increases and the rate of inflation. For spending any more, stay with two-thirds.

This doesn't satisfy Jacobs and others. So he's joined the current call for a state constitutional convention to get rid of the two-thirds standard and make other changes. He's allied his group with the big business-funded Bay Area Council to demand legislators place measures on the November 2010 ballot setting up such a convention.

"Everything should be on the table there with a majority vote," Jacobs said. Neither he nor anyone else knows who might participate in such a convention, how they'd be chosen and what they might produce.

All that's known is that Article 18 of the current California Constitution allows the Legislature - and only the Legislature - to place a proposition on the ballot calling for such a convention - if the voters say yes to the idea. But - and here's that supermajority thing again, written into the state Constitution more than 100 years ago - it takes a two-thirds vote to put such a measure on the ballot.

Not to worry, say convention advocates, who come in all political colorations. If legislators won't put it to a vote, we'll run an initiative to take that exclusive power away from lawmakers. And they just might run a companion measure at the same time calling for a convention and spelling out who would be in it.

"A convention should be broad and diverse; it should look just like the population of California," said Jacobs. Does this mean he's suggesting racial, religious and political affiliation quotas for convention delegates? He doesn't say.

The fact is, no one now can say much about what a convention would look like or what it might propose (any new constitution would have to be submitted to the voters for a simple majority up-or-down verdict). Would it eliminate the Proposition 13 property tax limits? Would it remove privacy protections that now give Californians more abortion rights than apply in most other states? Would it set up a simple majority or some other standard for passage of budgets and new taxes?

The answers to these and many other questions can't be known until the convention goes to work, if it ever does. Which makes the entire notion a Pandora's Box better left unopened - even if that does inconvenience Democratic politicians who would like the ability every year to ram through whatever spending plan they like.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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