Budget Reform Ideas Abound in Sacramento

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You wouldn't know it from the partisan bickering that dominated the discussions over the state budget, but Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento actually agree on something. They all say California's state budget process is broken. The best it produced this year is a budget that was 81 days late and pushed all the state government's fiscal problems into next year. At the governor's insistence, lawmakers did squeeze out a bit of budget reform this year. KPCC's Julie Small looks at whether more is on the way.

Julie Small: Governor Schwarzenegger got legislators to increase the amount of money the state sets aside in its "rainy day fund." He also got them to make it harder to pull those dollars out. They can do it, but only when the economy's bad, and not just because they want to spend a little more on some program.

Schwarzenegger also gained limited authority to make mid-year spending cuts when revenues drop below forecasts. But Tracy Westen with the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles says none of that addresses the main budget stumbling block in California.

Tracy Westen: The real problem is that we require a two-thirds vote to adopt a budget, and we require a two-thirds vote to increase any taxes.

Small: California is the only state in the nation that requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature for budgets and taxes. That means the Republicans can block both, even though they hold only 15 seats in the 40-member State Senate.

In the Assembly, they're well above the threshold with 32 seats among the 80 members. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass wants to put a measure on the November ballot to change the two-thirds requirement. But Tracy Westen says there's a catch.

Westen: To change the budgeting process, and to change the two-thirds vote requirement, it will take a two-thirds vote of the legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. And if the Republicans don't like it, they simply won't allow that amendment to be placed on the ballot.

Small: Westen says those who want to end the two-thirds requirement have a better chance at collecting signatures to put an initiative on the ballot. But getting the voters to pass it won't be easy. Californians have defeated similar efforts.

Westen: Now, many members of the public may be reluctant to do it, but the alternative is the kind of budget mess that we have today.

Small: Barbara O'Connor directs the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. She says changing the two-thirds majority requirement should be part of budget reform.

Barbara O'Connor: I think we need that, I think we also probably desperately need reapportionment reform, and that is on the ballot in November.

Small: It's Proposition 11, and it would change the way Senate and Assembly districts are drawn. Right now, the vast majority of districts are safe for incumbents. Supporters claim Prop 11 would make it easier for voters to get rid of lawmakers if they foul up.

Cal State Sacramento's Barbara O'Connor also thinks the state government should switch to a two-year budget cycle, so lawmakers spend more time making laws, and less time arguing over who gets how much state money. There are other budget reform ideas, too, like the Republicans' call for a strict cap on how much state spending can go up year-to-year. But Barbara O'Connor says the first thing that has to happen is a special legislative session on budget reform.

O'Connor: If I were the governor, I would do that right now while it's fresh in everybody's mind, you know, and get it done, because now is the time to get it done. If you wait, and things get a little better because of the national election, then no one's going to want to address these issues when they come back in December.

Small: By then, the governor will be preparing his budget proposal for January, and legislators will be gearing up for another budget battle.