March 08, 2010

Richard Winger: "Proposition 14 would not cure California's budget gridlock"

The following is a guest post by Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News. Richard submitted this post as an op-ed to the Los Angeles Times but they declined to publish it. (More from Richard on his dispute with the LA Times here.) Richard and I have long disagreed on the merits of the "top two" primary, but I offered to post this here because Richard has important things to say on Prop. 14 that deserve a hearing.

    Los Angeles Times reporters and columnists consistently write that California's state government is crippled because the legislature is composed almost entirely of ideologues who refuse to compromise with each other. For example, on February 28, Times reporter Steve Lopez writes that Senator Abel Maldonado is virtually the only moderate in the State Senate, and quotes Maldonado that gridlock is the result. The story also quotes Maldonado as saying that if the voters pass his "top-two open primary" ballot measure, Proposition 14, the problem will be ameliorated.

    The real cause of gridlock in the California legislature is the rule that budgets can only be passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature. California, Rhode Island, and Arkansas are the only states that have such a two-thirds rule for passing the budget. Rhode Island and Arkansas happen to have legislatures in which Democrats hold more than two-thirds of the seats in each house, so the two-thirds rule in those two states doesn't generally create gridlock.

    The real solution to solve California's budget gridlock is to eliminate the rule that the budget can only be passed with two-thirds of the legislators in each house. To those who fear that Democrats would pass an unacceptable budget if they could pass a budget with a majority vote, consider that we Californians have the recall, the initiative, and the referendum, to rein in a legislature that might otherwise be too powerful. We have enough checks on the legislature already. We should let the majority party in the legislature govern. If the voters elect a majority party, let that majority party pass its budget. If we don't like that budget, we not only have recall, initiative or referendum, we can defeat the majority party in the next election and replace it. But having given one party a majority in the legislature, we should let it pass the budget it wants.

    The alternative, Senator Maldonado's Proposition 14, will be no cure for budget deadline. The Public Policy Institute of California, in a report by Political Scientist Eric McGhee published in early February, concludes that under Proposition 14, "Moderates might benefit, but only slightly more often than under the current system." McGhee studied the California legislature in the period 1997-2001, when legislators had been elected under a very similar system, the blanket primary. He found the State Senate was just as polarized as it had been before, and also it was just as polarized as it is today. He found the Assembly was not quite as polarized.

    When McGhee spoke about his report in Sacramento on February 23, a question from the audience asked him why he had obtained all his data about legislative polarization from the study produced by the state Chamber of Commerce's report on legislative behavior, given that other organizations also produced legislative scorecards that McGhee did not use. He answered, "I just reported the scorecord that had the biggest effect." In other words, if he had used more data, the results would have showed even less difference between legislative behavior under the blanket primary and under a more closed primary system.

    When one walks the halls of the legislative offices in the Capitol, one sees that on the doors of many Republican legislators are posters, pointing out that California is already one of the most highly-taxed states in the nation. Republican legislators who are vehemently against tax increases are not opposed to tax increases because our current semi-closed primary system makes it easier to get re-elected if they oppose higher taxes. The vast majority of Republican legislators are opposed to higher taxes out of personal conviction that tax increases are bad policy. Changing the election system will not alter their behavior because their behavior is based on core beliefs, not political calculation.

    Proposition 14, the "top-two open primary" is not a cure for gridlock. The cure for gridlock is to repeal the two-thirds rule for passing a budget.

Posted by Rick Hasen at March 8, 2010 02:26 PM