SACRAMENTO — A month from now, lawmakers could be right back to where they were in February: locked in partisan gridlock, unable to resolve a gaping budget deficit.
A defeat of six of the seven measures on the May 19 special election ballot — a good possibility, according to recent polls — could mean a return to the Capitol's pattern of futile negotiations between Democrats, who hold large legislative majorities but little sway, and minority Republicans, who hold the last word on budgets.
If nothing else, political observers say, such a scenario could present an opening for Democrats to unmask what they believe to be the heart of the Legislature's dysfunction: the two-thirds vote in both houses to pass a budget, as required by the state constitution since 1937.
Lowering that threshold to a simple majority is "the next big fight we need to win," Treasurer Bill Lockyer said at the recent state Democratic Party convention, where delegates identified the two-thirds requirement as the most pressing issue among 117 they considered.
California is one of only three states — alongside Rhode Island and Arkansas — to require a two-thirds vote on budgets. Only five states, including California, have a two-thirds requirement for taxes.
Strategists and party officials say that they expect to put the issue before voters on the November 2010 ballot, perhaps lending it extra profile during the gubernatorial
Voters last rejected an effort to lower the threshold on budgets and taxes in 2004, by a two-to-one margin. But Democrats say they would keep their focus strictly on the vote threshold for budgets, and say that the current economic crisis has changed voters' outlooks. A recent poll showed that for the first time a majority of voters said they would support eliminating the two-thirds vote on budgets.
Conservatives suspect that the Democrats' true agenda is to open the door to lowering the threshold on tax votes from two-thirds to a simple majority vote.
"They can say budgets, but they really mean taxes," said Joel Fox, editor of conservative blog Fox & Hounds and president of the Small Business Action Committee. "They're not going to accomplish their ultimate goal of controlling everything without lowering the threshold for taxes."
Democrats say they can make enough changes in how the state spends its money — shifting spending from the Department of Corrections budget to higher education, for example — that they wouldn't need unbridled power to tax.
Still, the battle would ultimately be over power and the definition of majority-rule democracy: Democrats hold a 24-15 advantage in the Senate (and will add one more seat pending an upcoming special election) and 51-29 in the Assembly, and believe the will of the public that overwhelmingly favors Democrats is being thwarted.
"The people have repudiated the narrow and discredited Republican view because they have consistently elected strong majorities of Democrats," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, the chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee who has scheduled hearings on eliminating the two-thirds vote. "And yet, the majority party is unable to govern in terms of passing a budget and being held accountable. ... Something must change."
Democrats hope that by targeting the November 2010 ballot, the issue could become a major theme in the high-profile gubernatorial race. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the only declared Democratic gubernatorial candidate, vowed to campaign against the two-thirds vote on budgets, saying "the tyranny of the minority can't continue to determine the fate of the state."
Typically, government reform efforts need bipartisan support to avoid being seen as power grabs by either side. Since voters hold the Legislature as a whole in low esteem, however, they probably wouldn't be receptive to the general idea of giving it more power to approve a budget, said Garry South, Newsom's strategist.
Instead, Democrats would probably fare better by going directly after the sagging Republican brand and underscoring where the blame lays: with Republicans, he said.
"Democrats will basically have to throw Republicans under the bus," South said. "They will have to make the case that the problem is a handful of Republican extremists ... who are holding the budget hostage for pure partisan reasons."
Republicans will counter that a majority vote for budgets is only a precursor to a majority vote for taxes, said Ron Nehring, the chairman of the state GOP.
"I look forward," Nehring said, "to attacking every single Democrat in favor of making it easier to raise taxes."
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