If California voters are frustrated by yet another late budget and the state’s chronic fiscal mess, a common household item will identify one of the main causes: a mirror. Voters have placed so many restrictions on our legislature that it can scarcely function.
And boy howdy, do we have a mess on our hands. Legislators almost always miss their constitutional deadline to adopt a budget, they sometimes have impasses that nearly shut down the government, and the state’s budget deficits are routinely measured in the billions of dollars.
Voters aren’t the only problem, to be sure. Self-interested legislators who for years drew their own legislative districts contributed to the problem (thankfully, a redistricting fix is on the way, at least at the state level). The problem is made worse by legislators who put their allegiance to special interests — unions on one side of the aisle and corporations on the other, for example — ahead of their duty to do what’s best for the people of California.
But even that comes back to voters — we elect these people.
It’s a complex problem that won’t be solved with a simple solution. It will take lots of changes, many of them painful and unpopular, starting with these:
Repeal term limits
Besides the objection that term limits restrict voters as much as they restrict candidates by reducing the number of candidates for whom we can vote, term limits are a zero-tolerance policy: Zero tolerance for experienced legislators. Zero tolerance policies are bad because they’re indiscriminate. They do not distinguish between treating schoolmates sharing Tylenol and sharing illicit drugs, for example, or a six-year-old’s peck on the cheek and sexual harassment. Zero tolerance policies encourage intellectual laziness by eliminating the need to think. Not all legislators are the same, and thinking voters can vote out the bad ones at election time.
Some supporters of term limits wish for a political utopia that simply doesn’t exist. Maybe in an ideal world, citizens would take four- or eight-year career sabbaticals to serve in the state legislature, and in that ideal world, the state legislature would have a gentle learning curve, then those citizens would happily return to their careers and never think about political life again. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and folks who step away from careers, even temporarily, often lose advancement potential and income. In the real world, term limits force legislators to rely heavily on staff and special interest lobbyists, and instead of learning the job they were elected to do, they think about the office they’ll be seeking next.
Fix Proposition 13
The unintended consequences of this initiative are vast. From loopholes that businesses exploit to avoid reassessment of property to gross inequity in property taxes paid by newcomers, this proposition has decimated California’s ability to meet the needs of its growing population. Compare our educational system and infrastructure today to 1978, the year Prop 13 passed. It’s not a pretty picture. Was Prop 13 trying to fix a legitimate problem? Certainly, and I’m not advocating repeal. But it’s long past time for someone to have the political courage to force us to take a clear-eyed look at how we can improve it.
Drop the two-thirds majority rule to pass budgets and raise taxes
Super majorities are undemocratic. They are the primary cause of our chronic budget impasses. They subject us to tyranny by the minority. If you don’t like the budget that your legislator supported or you like the budget your legislator rejected, vote your legislator out of office.
End ballot-box budgeting
California is the eighth-largest economy in the world. Its budget is complex and we hire legislators to manage it. Their role is to consider the budget as a whole, set priorities, and make the state’s spending reflect those priorities. Legislators can’t do that when voters make spending decisions at the ballot box. Thanks to ballot-box budgeting, legislators control an ever-shrinking portion of the state’s budget. Most voters don’t think about the many priorities that must be balanced when they see a ballot-box budgeting initiative. We pay our legislators better than legislators in any other state in the nation. Let’s let them do the jobs we pay them handsomely to perform.
There’s more to be done, of course. But if we can start with these four things, in combination with the already coming fix of how legislative districts are drawn, we’ll be well on our way toward fixing the chronic mess that California’s in right now.