California Democracy Act may pose risks to state budget

Having faced some of the most agonizing budget decisions a State can make since the fairly mundane 2008 election, this November is the first time that Californians will have the opportunity to confront the wide array of proposed remedies and decide for themselves which of those remedies bears merit. This is a highly interesting moment, but also a highly dangerous one, for with it, as always, comes the potential for radical figures to overhaul key components of the Californian economy in arguably overambitious plans which throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Exhibit A: The California Democracy Act. Though this piece of proposed legislation carries an innocuous, or even mellifluous, sounding name, Californians should not be lulled into security – if passed, the bill would drastically alter California budget politics. According to the California Secretary of State’s website, the bill “changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the state budget, and to raise taxes, from two-thirds to a simple majority.” In other words, the bill is intended as a direct challenge to one of the key provisions of the infamous Proposition 13, and certainly also as an indirect means of weakening said Proposition to the point of nullification.

This ambition should surprise no one, given the bill’s sponsors. A quick perusal of its listed endorsements paints a picture which should alarm every nonpartisan or, for that matter, moderate voter. Among the politicians listed, there is not a single Republican, and those Democrats who are listed can best be described as the bluest of the blue – some of the more notable names include Tom Hayden, the controversial former activist and founder of SDS, as well as Mike Davis, a Southern California academic and regular contributor to the British magazine Socialist Review. The list of political organizations who have endorsed the measure is almost nothing but a list of local chapters of the Democratic party, with the occasional “progressive” activist group thrown in for color. Finally, the bill’s author and main pusher, George Lakoff, is a well-known left-liberal academic whose work has been described by the Harvard linguist Stephen Pinker as “a train wreck.” Perhaps most relevant to the bill in question, Pinker writes, “Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as ‘membership fees.’ Surely no one has to hear the metaphor ‘tax relief’ to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around.” The takeaway: From Lakoff’s perspective, tax increases are a good thing!

However, the mere fact that radicals support the bill is not a conclusive measure of its potential malevolence, so let us consider what the policy implications of the bill actually are. Whatever else one thinks of the bill, for instance, it is surely the case that its “majority vote” standard could promote a certain type of Democracy in the sense that it would force people on both sides of potential budget issues to try and mobilize as many of their forces as possible, rather than trying to court each other so as to amass a 2/3 supermajority. Moreover, since the California Constitution can be amended by a simple majority, as Lakoff’s supporters argue, the fact that a simple taxation decision takes 2/3s of the voters to pass is surely inconsistent.

Before dealing with these claims, it should be noted that one key element of the argument for the bill is missing – its fiscal relevance. Indeed, for a bill which purports to be about the budget, its proponents say shockingly little about its economic effects. This same enigmatic absence of information exists on the Secretary of State’s website, which notes that there would be “Unknown state fiscal impacts from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases. In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and/or state tax revenues could increase. Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future Legislatures.” In short, despite being about the budget, the bill does not really offer a concrete solution to our budget woes, but rather defers to the arguments listed above about the extension of democracy to suggest that, because the bill will permit for wiser decision-making in the aggregate, those wiser decisions will fix the budget problems spontaneously.

But is it true that allowing a simple majority of Californians to get their fingers on the budget without the necessity for a supermajority will produce wiser results? That is, can California’s people be trusted with both Constitutional amendments and budget decisions, unhampered by procedural obstacles? Assuming present trends persist, the answer to both questions is a thunderous “no.”

Let us deal with the question of budget priorities first. As already documented, Californians are notoriously underinformed about the most basic elements of the State’s budget. Moreover, it is arguable that the ballot initiative system itself, which lends itself to the passage of well-heeled, heartstring-tugging spending bills such as Proposition 98, is largely responsible for the current fiscal predicament of the state. At this point, allowing people to possess even more access to the state’s purse strings is rather like giving foxes complimentary meat grinders as a thank-you gift for running the hen house. Moreover, if the bill is intended to apply solely to to the legislature, then far from encouraging democracy, it will only contribute to the systematic disenfranchisement of those areas of California which vote with the minority.

And what about the Constitutional amendment comparison? While it is true that allowing a majority of voters to amend the Constitution, but not raise taxes, is a bit backwards in terms of priorities, that is not an argument for making it consistent by allowing them to do both – it is simply an argument that the current system is illogical. Moreover, on the terms of the bill’s supporters, California’s people do not do a good job of passing Constitutional amendments by a simple majority – Proposition 13 and Proposition 8 are prominent examples of bills which progressive activists and Democratic politicians see as perennial targets of obloquy. The imaginative reader can surely think of a way out of these dilemmas, but one only hopes that California’s people will not stretch their imaginations so much, for if they do, their pocketbooks will be stretched beyond the breaking point.