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Dan Walters: California's budget vote change is biting back

06/29/2012

The Sacramento Bee – June 29, 2012 – Dan Walters

I told you so. Or, more accurately, I was one of several commentators who warned voters two years ago that a ballot measure to reduce the legislative vote margin on the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority could backfire.

From a column before the 2010 election:

"There is, however, another troublesome aspect to Proposition 25. Even if its language isn't a backdoor way of raising taxes, it would allow extraneous matters to be included in the budget package and protect them from being challenged via referendum.

"Thus, it could be a vehicle for secretly passing special-interest favors that may have no real budgetary purpose. Conceptually, it's a step forward. In practice, however, it could have insidious and corrosive consequences."

We saw some of that legislative skulduggery in the 2011 budget, the first enacted under Proposition 25. But we've seen even more this year, as dozens of so-called trailer bills were drafted in secrecy, made technically legal only by including token $1,000 appropriations, and then quickly enacted with scant, if any, public notice.

One was aimed solely at making it more likely that voters would approve Gov. Jerry Brown's sales and income tax ballot measure by jumping it over others to the top of the November ballot. Several others were giveaways to public employee unions, which are the Democrats' chief source of funds for their own campaigns and the tax measure.

The process was so blatant that legislative leaders such as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg admitted that secrecy was employed to thwart opponents of bills from marshaling legislative opposition.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who rode advocacy of political reform into his first governorship, is a more-than-willing participant in this subversion of legislative process. He's implying to voters that he's solely focused on achieving his political aims, such as raising their taxes, and doesn't really care what it takes to get there.

Earlier, he had signed a measure requiring all initiative ballot measures to go on the November ballot, aimed specifically at making it easier for unions to defeat a pending "paycheck protection" measure that would restrict collection of campaign funds via paycheck deductions, reversing a policy he followed himself as secretary of state before becoming governor in 1975.

So why are Democrats wielding their newly minted budgetary power so ruthlessly? Because they can, one supposes, and perhaps because with the Legislature's public approval ratings already at rock bottom, they have nothing to lose.

Lowering the budget vote threshold to a simple majority in 2010, may have, as its advocates said, enhanced democracy. But the way it's been used is an anti-democratic regression to insular, arrogant and self-dealing governance.