Editor’s Notes

Pub date September 16, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

The Democrats, who control both houses of the state Legislature, lost badly on the state budget. They caved in, they sold out — and the worst part is, they had very little choice.

The state can’t keep running forever without a budget. I think we could have gone a little longer, and the Democrats could have turned up the public pressure a bit more, but in the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered a bit. A small number of anti-tax Republicans from very conservative districts now control the entire state budget process.

And the worst part of that is, I’m not sure we can change that. So I’m thinking we should try something else.

Just about everybody knows by now that California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds Legislative majority to approve a budget. The state Constitution also requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. So unless the Democrats can take control of both houses by a 67 percent majority, the GOP can exert a veto over any attempt to close a budget deficit with anything but deep, draconian cuts.

And the Republicans who hold sway aren’t the moderate types who might want to negotiate. One reason the Democrats control both the Assembly and the Senate is that they’ve been experts at drawing legislative lines, shoving large majorities of Republicans into a small number of districts. That means more Democrats in Sacramento — but it also means that many of the Republicans represent areas where there’s little chance a Democrat can challenge them — and where the voters will rebel against any representative who raises taxes.

"The Republicans have no incentive ever to raise taxes," Assemblymember Mark Leno explained to me recently. "They all fear that if they vote for a tax increase, they will lose their seats. And history shows that they are right."

That’s why the polls show an overwhelming percentage of Californians want better schools — but the state budget will take billions away from education, putting the next generation of Californians at risk.

So the buzz in more progressive circles in Sacramento is starting to focus on a constitutional reform that would eliminate the supermajority for budget approval. But that would only be meaningful if we also scrapped the two-thirds rule for new taxes — and that’s going to be a tough sell. I can see the money flowing by the tens of millions into a campaign to keep legislators from raising taxes. And given the fact that the public in general doesn’t trust the Legislature, it’s possible that battle will be lost.

Over and over, starting with Proposition 13 in 1978, California voters have approved anti-tax measures. I hope we can turn that tide around, but I think we also need a backup plan.

See, it doesn’t take a supermajority to give cities and counties the right to raise taxes on their own.

Leno, for example, has a bill that would allow cities to impose their own car taxes. In San Francisco, we’re talking big money, $50 million or so — enough, perhaps, to blunt the impact of the state’s cuts to public schools and public health. It might be easier to push for the passage of that sort of measure than for statewide Constitutional reform.

Let cities pass their own income taxes. Let counties impose oil-severance taxes. Amend Prop. 13 to allow higher taxes on commercial property.

Then maybe San Francisco and Berkeley and Los Angeles will wind up with better schools and parks and streets and hospitals, and Orange Country and the other anti-tax havens will see their public services collapse as the state keeps cutting. Maybe after a while they’ll get the point.