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Time to Mobilize on State Budget Reform

Paul Hogarth: If we can’t get a simple majority for raising taxes in the legislature, we can still put AB 656 on the ballot – while in the meantime get a simple majority for passing the budget. It’s those kinds of incremental (and winnable) moves we need to get us out of this mess.
Former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico

Former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico

The March 4th statewide education protests had their positive impact – sympathetic media attention on the plight of California’s public schools. But education’s not the only thing under siege – Schwarzenegger has eliminated state funding for public transit, as we see San Francisco’s Muni collapse in front of our eyes. Health care has been slashed, and in-home supportive services are under assault. Anyone reliant on state government in any way is in crisis mode, as California is falling further down a cliff.

Progressives have talked about getting rid of the “two-thirds rule” for years, but it must be done in a way that can win. And in this recession, voters won’t make it easier for Sacramento to raise taxes – no matter how fair and well thought out they are. Voters only support taxes if they know they won’t be paying them – which is why we should pass specific measures like the oil severance tax at the ballot box. As for getting rid of two-thirds for passing a state budget, the California Democratic Party has just made it easier to collect signatures – everyone must get involved now.

I took time last Thursday to watch the education rally in front of San Francisco City Hall, which was being replicated all over the state. The usual suspects were out in full force, but what was truly inspiring was to see so many high school and college kids out there – many of whom had never gone to a political protest before. I had the same thought one week earlier, when hundreds of angry bus riders swarmed City Hall to protest Muni fare hikes – prompting the MTA spokesman to say: “I’ve never seen anything like this. We should all get on buses and go to Sacramento.” Clearly, California’s at a tipping point.

But going to Sacramento probably won’t cut it. Our state’s political institutions have failed us miserably – and a vocal Republican minority in the legislature (along with our arrogant Governor) are not likely to be swayed by another Day of Action. It reminds me of what George Bush said back in 2003, when we saw unprecedented protests against going to war in Iraq – an estimated two million people taking to the streets on a single day. “I don’t listen to focus groups,” he said. Will these Republicans be any different?

We need structural change, and getting rid of the two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget needs to be the #1 priority. But for months, we’ve seen activists who support this goal divided on tactics – some support George Lakoff’s initiative to get a majority rule for both the budget and revenue, while others insist that taxes are a political non-starter. If the latest Field Poll is any indication, it will be hard getting a majority budget – let alone revenue solutions.

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Until now, I’ve been reluctant to take sides – because I didn’t see those pushing for the “pragmatic” route being very pro-active, as opposed to criticizing activists for being too idealistic. At least the Lakoff supporters were out there collecting signatures, even if the odds seemed long. But now unions are stepping in to build support for a majority budget, and the California Democratic Party has made it much easier to get rank-and-file activists to get involved. All you need to do is go to their website at, and you can download the petition yourself. The Party asks us to turn in signatures by April 1st – so we only have a few weeks to get busy.

As I’ve argued before, we will never get majority-rule for the state budget without taking the fight out of Sacramento – convincing voters that they can’t afford not to change the status quo. The fact that our public schools are dangerously close to being 50th in the nation in per-pupil spending, and that we have thousands of newly politicized students, parents and teachers ready to join the fight is the ideal time to get structural change.

Granted, a majority-vote budget without taxes will not bring the state any new revenue. But while we need to also pass targeted taxes, voters are not going to give the unpopular state legislature more power to raise taxes in general. Which does not mean that voters oppose all tax increases – just the ones they’re afraid will affect them. As a PPIC poll showed last year, Californians support an oil severance tax, raising the vehicle license fee and the corporate tax, increasing the upper-income tax bracket and many support an alcohol tax.

Which is why a sensible strategy would be to put up these current measures on the ballot for the voters to approve them. Right now, progressive groups are mobilizing to pass an oil severance tax to fund public education – but they’re doing it through the legislature. AB 656 by Assemblyman Alberto Torrico is good public policy, but does anyone think the Republicans – who refuse to support a single tax increase whatsoever, and come from districts where they get rewarded for such behavior – will support it to get two-thirds?

paul hogarth

If we can’t get a simple majority for raising taxes in the legislature, we can still put AB 656 on the ballot – while in the meantime get a simple majority for passing the budget. It’s those kinds of incremental (and winnable) moves we need to get us out of this mess.

Paul Hogarth

Republished with permission from BeyondChron.