Saturday, October 2, 2010




From now until Election Day, you can count on messages from opponents of Proposition 25 to tell you over and over that this ballot initiative is something far more pernicious than what it says it is.

What it says it is: A measure to reduce the vote needed to pass a state budget from today’s two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to simple majorities in both places.

What opponents say it is: A plot to weaken the requirement for a two-thirds majority in both houses in order to pass any tax increase.

It can often be illuminating for voters to examine the actual text of a measure when evaluating competing claims about it. This is one of those times.

So here’s what Proposition 25 says, in its Section 3: “This measure will not change Proposition 13’s property tax limitations in any way. This measure will not change the two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to raise taxes.”

Then, in Section 4, it adds, that “Nothwithstading any other provision of law…the budget bill and other bills providing for appropriations related to the budget bill may be passed in each house by roll call vote…, a majority of the membership concurring…”

Opponents are fixating on that passage in Section 4, saying it essentially contradicts the statement from earlier in the initiative.

Sacramento lawyer Steven Merksamer, once chief of staff for ex-Gov. George Deukmejian and now a lawyer and lobbyist usually representing conservative interests, insists the second paragraph completely supercedes the initial statement of the Proposition 25’s purpose.

He and others claim that if tax increases are included in a budget bill they could be passed by a simple majority right along with the spending provisions every budget contains.

Wrote Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which fights anything it believes might make taxes easier to increase, Proposition 25 “would make it easier to circumvent Proposition 13’s requirement of a two-thirds vote to increase state taxes.”

Coupal sees the initiative and the impasse that reigned in Sacramento for months after the June 30 deadline for a new budget to take effect as two parts of a longtime plot by Democratic legislators to get rid of the two-thirds-vote requirement for taxes.

Democrats, meanwhile, say this measure is about only one thing, and that is getting budgets passed quickly. They contend that if they tried to sneak new taxes into any majority-vote budget, they would immediately be dragged into court and defeated.

The state’s non-partisan legislative analyst’s overview of Proposition 25 appears to back the Democrats’ view. That analysis notes that since the measure’s own statement of purpose and the ballot description written by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown both say it would preserve the two-thirds barrier to new taxes, courts would have no choice but to nix any tax passed on a majority vote, even if it were included in a budget bill.

But there’s one claim by the opponents that is indisputably valid: They say simple majority budget votes would remove the veto power the Legislature’s minority party now can exercise in debates about spending priorities. That’s the way it works in 47 other states. Only Arkansas and tiny Rhode Island now join California in requiring two-thirds budget votes.

As things are now, the minority Republicans possess a few votes more than the one-third they need to stop passage of any budget. But Democrats have large majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate. So they could pass any spending plan they liked if it only took a simple majority.

In fact, they’d have to do that to avoid the freeze on legislative salaries and expense payments that Proposition 25 would impose during any time period between the legal deadline for passage and the actual date a budget was approved.

But the Democrats still might find themselves stymied by that old two-thirds bugaboo. For Proposition 25 does nothing to the longstanding requirement for a balanced budget, and if Democrats were to go on a spending binge after approval of majority votes for budgets, they would have to look somewhere for revenue to fund it.

Yes, legislators at times have tried to put the “fee” label on things that normal people consider to be taxes. But if the majority tried that too obviously and too often and in too large an amount, that also would end up in court and most likely be overturned.

So it's for sure that the majority vote would decrease the influence of the minority party, right now the Republicans. But no, it would not give the majority a totally free hand. And it might just speed things up and avoid the seemingly annual ritual of the state controller issuing warrants, or IOUs, to cover state debt.

Which means this is one proposition that ought to pass, regardless of any twisted interpretations its opponents try to attach to it.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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