California Budget and Taxes Wonk Alert
Pioneer Lansford Hastings must be the most optimistic guy in California history.
At the 1849 constitutional convention founding the state, Hastings opposed a limit on the load of public debt California could take on, for the curious reason that “in all likelihood, no debt at all would be created after the government got on its feet, no matter what amount the constitution permitted.”
So much for optimism.
A native Ohioan, Hastings authored “The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California,” a kind of pre-Civil War Lonely Planet Guide, aimed at wooing millions of settlers to the Golden State. In his book, he reported a speedy overland alternative to the Oregon Trail; sadly the short-cut’s popularity was cut short, after the plucky but unlucky folks known as the Donner Party discovered a few problems with it that Hastings did not completely think through.
The man didn’t have much luck with budget prognosis, either; within two years, the state ran up $2 million in red ink, and never really stopped. Taxpayers now fork out $5 billion a year in interest for the insatiable borrowing that props up what is charitably called California’s spending plan.
Amid the debris of last month’s budget train wreck, business-oriented, good government advocates and liberal activists have called for a 21st century constitutional convention, to revamp the fiscal and political structures. The plan is just one part of a sweeping new push for reform in Sacramento and beyond that will soon (wonk alert!) confront Californians with a set of crucial, if arcane and complex, issues critical to their self-governance.
- Last week more than 400 people showed up for a Sacramento summit meeting to discuss the constitutional convention proposal. The event featured an intriguing mix of Bay Area corporate leaders – fed up with the economic ripple effects of the budget meltdown – and statewide liberal activists – eager to pass reforms giving more power to majority Democrats in the Legislature. The group is eyeing a 2010 ballot initiative to jump-start the convention process.
- On May 19, voters in a hastily convened special election will decide the fate of six initiatives, whose passage underpins the latest budget deal. The most far-reaching is Proposition 1A, which would cement into the constitution a cap on state spending and a rainy day reserve fund. The kicker: Prop 1A’s passage would also authorize $17 billion in higher taxes, by extending temporary raises in levies for income, sales and vehicles tucked into the new budget. The measure, already enmeshed in litigation, is opposed by a strange bedfellow alliance of anti-tax GOPers and pro-spending Democrats.
- During the 2010 race for governor, voters also will decide whether to put in place the so-called “open primary” plan championed by state Senator Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria. That system would radically alter the state’s political landscape and weaken the power of California’s two major parties.
With this backdrop, Democrat legislators have introduced three separate measures to roll back the requirement for a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, while liberal activist groups are circulating petitions to qualify two similar 2010 initiatives, both aimed at ending the minority veto that Republicans now effectively hold over tax and spending proposals. One would overturn the 2/3rds requirement for budget votes; the other also seeks to dump the 2/3rds needed for new taxes.
Ted Anagnoson, a visiting professor of political science at UCSB, unearthed in the state archive a report, prepared during a previous push for constitutional reform, which traces the history of California’s government structure (including a footnote on Lansford Hastings’s no-worries-be-happy stance on debt). Anagnoson said in an interview that the fate of the supermajority vote is perhaps the most important, and polarizing, issue amid the new political reform debate.
“The two-thirds budget vote is the single thing that makes Sacramento difficult to govern,” he said.
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