Ending the Annual Budget Impasse Ritual

The California budget process is broken due to the requirement for a two-thirds vote to pass the budget.

I would like to suggest a different procedure that preserves the minority protections of the two-thirds requirement while encouraging negotiation and ensuring that there definitely will be a budget passed.

Proposal: If no budget passes by the deadline according to the two-thirds rule, both political parties get to prepare a budget to go to the ballot. Whichever budget gets the most votes becomes the budget.

Prop. 8 provides an excellent example of why it is important to make sure that a simple majority cannot make critical decisions affecting the rights of a minority. This proposal preserves the minority protection of the two-thirds rule. If the minority feels confident that it can win on the ballot, it can force the issue to go to the people.

This proposal encourages negotiation by legislators. Both sides should fear an all-or-nothing process by which an election chooses one budget over the other. It would be better to compromise than to take a chance that the other side gets 100% of what it wants at the polls. For example, even though Democrats in the Legislature might feel comfortable with their electoral majority, they also know that an anti-tax measure like Proposition 13 of 1978 can pick up a populist following. In practice, it should be expected to be rare to resort to sending the budget to the people.

This proposal ensures that a budget will be passed. Once the deadline passes, both parties prepare their own budget. Particular party leaders should be specified in the law to lead the selection (e.g., majority and minority leaders of the Senate). Other than having the election result in a tie, one of the two budgets will be enacted. Even a tie can be resolved by allowing the Governor to choose in such a case.

Of course voters cannot be expected to read a thousand-page budget. Voters would decide the way other issues are decided. Complex problems would be boiled down to simple summaries, for example, the question this year might be do you want to “cut services and hold taxes steady” or do you want to “preserve services and raise taxes”? In another year, it could be do you want to spend the surplus on tax rebates, saving for a rainy day, or building infrastructure?

There are details to be worked out such as scheduling for the election. Currently, there is only a 15-day period between the budget deadline and the end of the fiscal year, which does not give time for an election. If we keep the budget deadline at June 15 and set the end of the fiscal year at December 31, then there is plenty of time after the failure to meet the deadline to prepare for a November ballot proposition and after the election to certify the result.


There is also a question of what to do about odd numbered years in which there currently is no scheduled November election. There are many possible answers. We could hold a special election if necessary in November. We could reschedule municipal elections to hold all of them in November in odd years rather than the current current schedule that has many in spring in those years. That way, there would be elections all over the state already scheduled at that time. Or we could create a rule that in odd years the failure of a budget negotiation would simply result in last year’s budget being carried forward for one more year with cost of living adjustments or other adjustments specified in the previous budget. Effectively, a two-year budget would be passed in even numbered years, with a possibility of amending it in odd years.

richard_mathews__sapphire2000.gifOther proposals to fix this problem do not fully solve it. Replacing the two-thirds rule with a simple majority rule would greatly decrease the chance of having no budget; but it would not eliminate it, nor would it provide protection for minorities. We could instead use some other arbitrary super-majority rule, such as 55% or 60%. The higher we set the percentage, the more we protect the rights of the minority, but the less we reduce the chance of having no budget. These fixes really do not solve the problem.

We cannot continue to have a process that allows for the possibility of having no budget. Redirecting a budget impasse to the people provides a way to ensure there will always be a budget while still protecting the rights of the minority.

Richard M. Mathews

Richard M. Mathews is an Elected Member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee and Vice President of the North Valley Democratic Club. The Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley presented him with the 2008 Truman Award for Outstanding Volunteer of the Year.


  1. fFrank Amon says

    I agree. This is a great idea.
    I hope that the new method of drawing district lines that was recently approved by the voters of California will help.
    The beauty of this idea is that it puts a really BIG incentive to find a compromise before the legislators. This would preserve the minority view.
    This year the pressure on the legislators to reach an agreement took a long time to build. The promise of an electoral battle would be a lot of pressure on the legislators and it would build quickly against a known and fixed date.

    Going to a 50% rule gets things done all right. In the current situation it would allow the Democrats to do whatever they want. While messy, this year’s fight by the Republicans gave us, I believe, a better budget than any of the Democrat-only proposed budgets.

  2. Richard M. Mathews says

    Someday, you will be in the minority, and you will wish we still had a two-thirds requirement.

    When we were in the minority, we fought and won the battle to keep the 60% requirement in the U.S. Senate, defeating the Republican attempts at the “nuclear option” to end filibusters. It is frustrating now that we are facing so many Republican filibusters, but it was the right thing to do. We similarly need to keep this minority protection.

    There are many instances in both state and federal procedure that require supermajority votes. It simply is not true that constitutional amendments are the only votes that require a supermajority. Other examples are state bills to increase taxes and state bills that will go into effect before the end of the year.

    Linda says this proposal would “exasperate the situation further” and “Allow[] the minority to delay the process further.” Not at all. This proposal ensures there definitely will be a budget before the fiscal year starts. Even a simple majority rule does not do that because there could be three factions that all lack a majority.

    Sharon says we have to fear the Republican anti-tax soundbite, and she is right. If the Democratic budget reads like a big giveaway, it will be hard to defend. I believe the Democratic budgets proposed over the past months do provide a good balance, and we could win with our own soundbite: “preserve essential services.”

    Misha worries about “the exorbitant expense of having an election” If you read the proposal carefully, you will see that it times the process to avoid holding an election except when one would be held anyway.

    Finally there is another argument against the simple-majority proposal that I did not bring up before. Either proposal would require a constitutional amendment, but the simple-majority proposal would be seen as a naked power grab by the majority Democrats. It would never pass. If you want to end the annual impasse, you are not going to do it by sticking to the purist view that a simple majority is the only possible solution. We say we want Republicans to be willing to compromise, but we need to be willing to do so as well.

  3. Dick Price says

    I agree that the solution is to have a simple majority approval of the budget.

    Then, we citizens need to hold our legislators accountable and encourage them to enact legislation in our best interests and avoid supporting initiatives — both us and our representatives — that should be handled by the people we’ve entrusted with the job.

    — Dick

  4. says

    Ditto Sharon. Plus, there is the exorbitant expense of having an election. It doesn’t make sound fiscal sense.

    We as Democrats need to re-educate the body politic to understand that taxes are NOT a bad thing. Otherwise we’d have only toll roads owned by private entities, we’d have no free education, no health and human services, no water flowing to Southern CA, no unemployment system, and on and on and on…

    We have to change the attitude of selfishness and cultivate a culture of “we’re all in this together”.

  5. Sharon Toji says

    Alas, I fear the unintended consequences. The Republican budget’s soundbite summary would be “This budget does not raise your taxes one dime and gets rid of wasteful spending in Sacramento.” How do you think Schwartzenegger got elected?

    We don’t protect the “minority” on other legislative votes unless they are to amend the constitution. (Yes, I realize what Prop 13 did to votes on taxes, which is obviously an exception to that statement.) Votes in the legislature are not the same as deliberations on constitutional rights. Therefore, I don’t believe the analogy is useful. We can see that the great majority of states pass budgets by a simple majority of their legislator’s votes. They pass them on time. If there are items within the budget that violate the constitutional rights of anyone, then that can be brought before the courts, which is how we protect the rights of minorities — not by allowing the legislature to be crippled by requirements for two thirds votes on housekeeping acts.

    In short, the two/thirds requirement has to go.

    Sharon Toji

  6. Linda Doran says

    The intent behind this suggestion is laudable, but in my opinion, the threat of taking the budget to the people in the event of a disagreement would only exasperate the situation further. We already have a situation in which a minority party can prevent passage of a budget. Allowing the minority to delay the process further, repeatedly take center stage, and change the subject rather than taking care of the business at hand would be unconscionable. This kind of behavior results in a sabotage of government that reminds me of the Weimar Republic’s inability to govern prior to the rise of the Nazi Party.

    As residents, we suffer the consequences each time the California Legislature is unable to achieve a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. Dragging the process out further by using, or threatening to use, the initiative process with its multiple ballot measures, countermeasures, and legal challenges to all the measures is not a solution.

    The intent behind the referendum system is to give the people recourse when they perceive the Legislature as being unresponsive to their needs, not to give the Legislature recourse when its members can’t do their job. As voters, we delegate the responsibility of governing to our elected officials. We rely on them to gather as much information as possible, negotiate agreements, and vote responsibly based on what they perceive to be best. One of the benefits of having a legislature is that we don’t have a public free-for-all every time a decision has to be made.

    What we need in California is a system that neither allows a minority to hold everyone else hostage nor allows legislators to cop out of the process, which is what the current system permits minority members to do whenever they don’t get their way. What we need is a simple majority to pass a budget. That requires a change to the state Constitution, which requires — you guessed it — a ballot measure, by the people, of the people, and for the people.

    Thanks for reading.

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