Restoring Democracy in California

Mar 25, 2011 No Comments

By Nik Dixit

What’s wrong with California?

Many of us ponder this question with alarming regularity. Unfortunately, our concerns are well-founded. Last summer, we saw our state fall over the fiscal precipice. We issued IOUs for the first time in years, damaging both our credit rating and our pride. We made drastic cuts to services, including K-12 education and our own university. We saw our political system paralyzed by gridlock, with its leading figures mired in childish bickering. Our state’s dysfunction lies exposed as it never has before.

The sources of our problems are numerous and multifaceted. However, chief among them is the so-called “two-thirds rule.” Under this rule, any budget or tax increase must be approved by two-thirds of each house of the Legislature. However, since it allows a small fringe to thwart the popular will, the “two-thirds rule” is actually minority rule.

Minority rule has an obvious problem: it is fundamentally undemocratic. Undoubtedly, some decisions, such as those regarding basic rights, should require supermajorities. For bills as routine as budgets, however, they have no place. Budgets are literally the most ordinary, routine legislation in government. They involve basic allocations of resources, not fundamental rights. They should be shaped by majorities, as they are in nearly every other state.

The central principle of democracy is “one man, one vote”, yet in California one-third of our citizens can negate the rest. This process is so twisted that California stands alone—we are the only state which demands a two-thirds vote for both budgets and taxes.

Unfortunately, minority rule is more than a theoretical problem. In practice, it favors special interests over the public interest. It grants Republicans de facto control of state government, even though they are a small and dwindling minority in California. They number only 31.1% of voters, and they do not have majorities in any Assembly, Senate, or Congressional district. At the presidential level, California has not voted for them in over twenty years.

Yet, because they control one-third of the Legislature, Republicans have the power to block any budget. Unsurprisingly, they exercise this power with great frequency.  Forty of forty-four Republican legislators have pledged never to raise taxes under any circumstances, and, aided by minority rule, they have forced this rigid ideology upon our state.

Most recently, Republicans wielded their power during the July budget battle. Due to deteriorating economic conditions, legislators were forced to close a $26 billion deficit. However, instead of taking a balanced approach, Republicans categorically forswore new revenues. Thus they left us with only one option: cut, cut, cut. As a result, we bore terrible blows to the most basic of services. For example, K-12 education lost $6.5 billion in funding, and higher education was slashed another $2 billion.

These cuts were especially painful because they could have been mitigated. Instead of slashing services, we could have explored popular, common-sense revenues. We could have increased tobacco fees, which would have reduced smoking and raised over $1 billion. We could have placed “severance” fees on oil companies, which drill in our lands and profit from our resources. Presently, California is the only oil-producing state without such a fee.

Both these solutions are overwhelmingly popular. According a July poll, 66% of Californians support severance fees and a whopping 73% tobacco fees. However, minority rule allows Republicans to impose their anti-tax extremism. They blocked these common-sense solutions, choosing affordable cigarettes over affordable education in contrast with the popular will.

Luckily, a consensus is emerging that California needs reform. Many diverse groups have called for a constitutional convention, including Repair California, the California Action Network, and the business-oriented Bay Area Council.

However, a more direct campaign has been launched by one of our own professors, George Lakoff. In September he submitted the California Democracy Act, a ballot initiative stating, in its entirety, “All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.” This proposal brilliantly captures the essence of our problem: democracy. Some may demonize it as a ploy to raise taxes, but it does not even speak of them—it only restores majority rule.

Under the California Democracy Act, tax policy would reflect the democratic judgment of our entire society, determined through a fair and open process. If the legislature overreaches, we would always have recourse—elections. This initiative has no hidden agenda; it only upholds democracy. It offers a straightforward solution to minority rule, and it deserves our support in 2010.

One way or another, minority rule must go. It is the foremost problem of our state, and it enables countless others. We need to restore democracy, and return to the majoritarian roots of our California Republic.

Spring 2010

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