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Members of the Lamorinda Democratic Club at its May 16 meeting had the opportunity to consider state spending and revenue policy options just days after Governor Schwarzenegger released his May Revised Budget. The club welcomed the Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization Next 10 to lead us in their innovative California Budget Challenge, which is based on the organization’s popular web site.

Next 10 gave LDC club members an instant-response keypad to vote on the various spending and revenue options. These options are modeled on those under consideration by our elected officials in Sacramento. The Contra Costa Times’ Lisa Vorderbrueggen attended the meeting and reported on how the challenge worked:

In an interesting twist, Next 10 imposed a two-thirds voting requirement on the Lamorinda Democrat Club audience Friday in an effort to more closely mimic the state’s budget process.

The Legislature mandates a two-thirds approval for the budget, which means the Republicans can block it until Democrats meet their demands.

Moving to a simple majority rule would have transformed the club’s budget from a $6.9 billion deficit to a $3.7 million surplus.

Some of the areas where club members couldn’t meet the two-thirds threshold included subsidies for the use of fuel-efficient cars, an extension of unemployment jobless benefits or how to pay for ballooning public employee retirement health care costs.

But the biggest split came over the imposition of a tax on carbon emissions to raise money for the general fund, which would have erased the deficit and createda surplus.

As I noted in remarks at the end of the program, the fact that the two-thirds vote requirement increased the deficit at the end of the challenge unfortunately reflects reality. Despite the rhetoric, the two-thirds vote requirement does not lower deficits or spending. As the 1996 California Constitution Review Commission explained:

In theory a two-thirds vote should force a compromise between the majority and minority parties. For a number of years, the system worked in this manner.Recently, however, it has permitted those who have specific interests, which may or may not be related to the budget, to delay passage of the budget by leveraging their issue into the budget debate. The Citizens Budget Commission found that long budget delays, where a small group of legislators were ableto stall budget adoption, caused higher levels of spending. The Commission agreed with that finding.Although conventional wisdom indicates otherwise, the two-thirds vote requirement does not seem to limit higher levels of spending. In practice, it encourages it.(emphasis added)

This is one of the reasons our local legislators are seeking, as Senator Tom Torlakson explained in an April 2008 commentary on the California Progress Report, “to return democracy to the California budget process.” Our local Assemblymembers, Loni Hancock and Mark DeSaulnier, are co-authoring Torlakson’s SCA 22, an effort to allow California to join the other 47 states with majority-vote budget rules.

The two-thirds vote requirement means that even if Democratic legislators vote unanimously for a budget, they need two Republicans in the Senate and six Republicans in the Assembly to vote with them. With 46 of the 47 Republican members of the Legislature having signed Grover Norquist’s “no taxes pledge,” the two-thirds vote requirement gives these Republicans the power to block sane budget solutions balanced between spending cuts and revenue increases. If the budget is late, pressure could grow on the Democrats to cut a deal–even one focused only on spending cuts.

This summer our legislators need our support–personally and in the media–to fight back against the devastating education and health and human services cuts proposed by the Governor. Will we have a balanced solution to this budget crisis? Will we confront the $12 billion a year in tax cuts the California Budget Project estimates have been implemented since 1993-94–a major factor in the state’s chronic budget problems?
Or will Republicans get their way and leave program cuts as the only solution?

Do you know someone, a family member or friend, who lives in a Republican-held Assembly or Senate district? Then please consider getting in touch with them. Have you made your feelings known to the Governor? Have you written to the editor of your local newspaper about the impact of these proposed cuts?

If you could not attend the May meeting, please take the Next 10 California Budget Challenge by clicking here. Then be ready to take action–our children and vulnerable residents need our help as the budget process moves forward.

Disclosure: In addition to being the president of the Lamorinda Democratic Club, I serve on Senator Torlakson’s staff. The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employers or the entire Lamorinda Democratic Club.