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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?

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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.

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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.

Other 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.