Restoring majority rule - Page 2

Ballots measures seek to break California's political and financial gridlock

But while the California Democracy Act simply resolves that "all legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote," neither the state Democratic Party nor the major unions are willing to support Lakoff's measure, citing its bad results in the polls.

Instead, veteran legislator and California Democratic Party Chair John Burton is backing a Hancock proposal that seeks to reduce to a simple majority the Legislature's voting requirement on budget bills.

Lakoff warns that budget bills merely determine how to slice the pie, while revenue bills determine the size of the pie. This means that if Democrats succeed in only reforming the state's budget voting requirements, they'll still be stuck with having to make painful cuts.

But Hancock, who has been living with the results of this fiscal gridlock since she was elected to the state Assembly six years ago and helped sponsor the failed oil severance tax initiative in 2006, believes decisions to cut prison or education spending are not trivial.

"Last year Democrats gave $2 billion in tax breaks just to get one desperately needed Republican vote on the budget," Hancock told the Guardian. "And now the Republicans are asking for takeaways on environmental and labor protections that they otherwise wouldn't have any power to negotiate."

"I am a realistic idealist," Hancock continued. "I believe we are better off to get the majority vote to pass the budget. That way, the minority might begin to negotiate and have a more rational conversation. I'm very pleased that throughout the state, folks are recognizing that state governance is broken."

California Tax Reform Association executive director Lenny Goldberg told us it's hard to choose between the Lakoff and Hancock initiatives.

"It's a question of what's achievable, of how to focus energy," Goldberg said. "Lowering the vote requirement for the budget would eliminate some of the hostage-taking and help reverse the corporate loopholes that the Democrats were forced to accept to get a budget passed. So at least it would make the budget process better."

But he agrees that budget reform only makes the Democrats solely responsible for the budget, while preventing them from raising revenue.

"So there is some disagreement whether it's better to do one, if you can't do tax reform," he said. "In the end, it's a strategic, not substantive, question. Is it better to do budget alone, or not at all? Personally, I think we're better off doing budget reform than nothing — but it's a close call."

Hancock and Lakoff both believe that a competing initiative, endorsed by Schwarzenegger and funded by the group California Forward, is the poison pill in the upcoming fiscal equation.

"Unfortunately, it'll make it harder to raise fees," Hancock said.

"It should be renamed California Backward," Lakoff quipped, noting that while the California Forward initiative supports a simple majority on budget bills, it seeks to raise to two-thirds the voting threshold on new fees.

California Forward executive director Jim Mayer said his organization supported Prop. 11, the redistricting measure that passed in November 2008, "as a start to melt the political gridlock.

"And our two initiatives will help legislators do a better job of spending the pie," Mayer added, noting that his group is talking to Democrats and Republicans as well as counties, cities, and branches of the Chamber of Commerce.

One of California Forward's initiatives seeks to change the budget vote requirement to a simple majority and create a two-year budget cycle. It also forces the Legislature to use one-time revenues for one-time expenditures — and requires a two-thirds vote on fee increases, raising Democrat hackles.