Restoring majority rule

Ballots measures seek to break California's political and financial gridlock
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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's lame duck response to California's projected $20 billion state deficit has given supporters of more than 30 budget and revenue-related state initiatives now in circulation a renewed sense of urgency as they scramble to gather signatures and qualify proposed solutions to the state's ongoing financial emergency for the November ballot.

But while this plethora of initiatives reflects widespread frustration over the state's broken system of governance, disagreement rages over how to fix it and how best to restore majority rule to California.

"These are the hardest decisions a government must make, yet there is simply no conceivable way to avoid more cuts and more pain," the governor told reporters Jan. 8 as he released a new budget proposal calling for $8.5 billion in cuts to state workers' wages, health and human services, and prisons; a legally questionable $4.5 billion shift in other funds; and $6.9 billion in federal reimbursements that have yet to be approved.

Even steeper social services cuts are in the works, Schwarzenegger warned, if the feds don't comply with this request for a bailout. But he refused to target corporations and millionaires as revenue sources, clinging instead to the standard Republican pledge not to raise taxes.

"We didn't hear him say, 'We are going to pinch the wealthy and the corporate,'<0x2009>" State Sen. Mark Leno observed. "He is definitely setting his sights on the social safety net."

Recent revolts within the public university system, including the November takeover of UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall, suggest that tuition hikes, layoffs, and reduced study options have brought students to the tipping point.

But UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff fears that without restoring majority rule to the state's budget and revenue-related measures, such revolts only address symptoms, not causes, of the impasse.

So Lakoff decided to author the California Democracy Act, an initiative that would replace the state's two-thirds requirement on budget and revenue bills with a simple majority vote, after Sen. Loni Hancock invited him to meet with a group of Democratic state senators last spring.

"She said the Democrats were having problems getting anything done, and I went away saying, 'this is ridiculous,'<0x2009>" Lakoff said. "It occurred to me that since the problem came by way of the initiative process, then it was possible to rectify it that way."

Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978, limited property tax increases and required a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to approve most new tax increase, measures that contributed mightily to the state's bleak financial situation.

California also requires a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to approve the annual budget, along with only Arkansas and Delaware. On Jan. 5, Sonoma State philosophy professor Teed Rockwell told the Potrero Hill Democratic Club to endorse Lakoff's initiative, noting that California is the only state to require two-thirds vote on budget and revenue bills.

"I have learned that essentially everything that is uniquely wrong with California results from this one fact," Rockwell said.

California has the largest number of millionaires in the U.S., but as Rockwell observed, thanks to the fiscal stranglehold of the Republican minority, "We do not have enough money to keep our parks open or maintain affordable tuition at our public colleges. And the extremists in Sacramento want to solve this problem by decreasing taxes on millionaires and increasing taxes on the middle class."

Rockwell noted that of the 22 states that produce oil in the U.S., all have oil severance taxes, including Sarah Palin's Alaska and George W. Bush's Texas — except California.