SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Sandre Swanson is convinced that the only way to avoid lengthy budget stalemates in the future is to strip the minority party of what he calls its out-sized influence.
The Oakland Democrat is among a handful of East Bay lawmakers who want voters to overturn the constitutional requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature must approve the budget. Now in its 50th day, the budget standoff is threatening to spill into next month as both parties remain far apart on finding a solution to the state's estimated $15.2 billion deficit.
"It just has to change, and citizens will have to lead us on this," said Swanson, a member of the Assembly Budget committee. "California is being held hostage by six members of this Assembly. That's the tyranny of the minority. Six members have disproportionate influence."
Swanson and fellow Assembly members Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, say they are committed to rounding up grass-roots support to put the issue on the 2010 ballot. They expect it to be just as relevant in two years as it is now because program costs are likely to continue to outstrip revenues.
"The time has really come to take a new look at this 70-year-old constitutional amendment," Hancock said. "The public doesn't understand that there's a reason the Democratic majority can't put a budget on the governor's desk. That's the two-thirds vote."
Since its inception in the 1930s, complaints about the two-thirds vote requirement on the budget have swirled around the Capitol, but no one has mustered enough political capital to change it.
Legislative attempts at reform are typically dead on arrival because constitutional amendments themselves need a two-thirds vote. Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, introduced a measure to eliminate the two-thirds votes on the budget and taxes earlier this year, but has failed to get it out of committee.
A similar measure, Proposition 56, failed by a 2-1 margin at the ballot in 2004, when voters rejected a constitutional amendment to eliminate the two-thirds vote requirements for budgets and taxes. Swanson said taxes won't be touched in any future ballot measure.
Rhode Island and Arkansas are the only other states to require a two-thirds vote from their legislators on the budget. California is also one of only five states with a two-thirds vote requirement on raising taxes.
"I certainly hope someone would do something about the two-thirds vote," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State. "It would go a long way to restoring the public's trust by having some solution to the budgetary crises each year."
Conservatives say Democrats can have a simple majority vote on budgets; it's the two-thirds vote on taxes they'll defend to the end, they say.
"The two-thirds vote on the budget is almost irrelevant — it's almost a moot point," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "The issue is tax revenues, not expenditure plans."
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