George Skelton: Almost Right (Updated)

In the LA Times yesterday, George Skelton made three suggestions aimed at preventing future state budget crises. He almost got it right.

Lower the vote requirement for a budget to 55%. That’s still a supermajority, but one that’s practical given California’s increasing diversity of people and interests represented in Sacramento. A budget then would need 44 votes in the Assembly and 22 in the Senate, rather than 54 and 27. Democrats normally could handle that by themselves.

Also drop the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes to 55%, with one caveat: All the new revenue must be used to help balance a status-quo budget — not a penny for spending increases above inflation and population growth.

If they still don’t pass a budget by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, the lollygagging lawmakers forfeit their pay and per diem for every day the spending plan is late. For most, that would be a hard hit. Legislators make $116,208 a year; house leaders get $133,639. Per diem is $173 tax-free each day — even weekends — while the Legislature is in session.

To his credit, he recognizes the unfairness of the third rule to legislators who vote for a budget and aren’t rich. He misses, of course, the unfairness to legislators who don’t vote for a budget for some principled reason, and aren’t rich. I disagree with why Republicans refuse to vote for a tax increase, vehemently. I don’t, however, think that we should essentially extort legislators into passing a budget they disagree with.

I think, instead, that abolishing the 2/3rd rule should be enough to result in budgets passed in a timely manner. I don’t believe that a majority of legislators want the budget delayed every year.

The bigger problem is the spending cap he wants to impose as a condition of changing the 2/3rds rule for taxes. He rightly accounts for population growth in the spending cap – a vital necessity given the projections for the next few decades. However, he misses two other key sources of new spending: 1) popular initiative and 2) disaster relief.

A great deal of the spending in our state is in some way governed or mandated by initiative. Between program mandates and debt service on bonds, it is not practical to believe that binding the legislature’s hands on taxes while allowing the populace free-reign over spending will produce balanced budgets. The populace is not going to approve, by initiative, more money for prisons. However, they will approve toughening sentencing laws to send more people to prison. It is the role of the legislature to make sure that the necessary funds are raised to meet the expenditures mandated by the wishes of the populace. A system that denies the legislature the flexibility to meet those mandates is no more functional that the current system.

The second issue is disaster relief. Beyond the obvious expenditures that would follow a massive earthquake, there are other more prosaic expenditures. Climate change will require both large capital improvements in the form of, say, new water infrastructure. It will also involve smaller, annual expenditures in the form of, for example, wildfire fighting costs. There may be costs associated with global warming over the next 50 years that we cannot even predict. And that is the point. Placing any kind of hard cap on either taxes or expenditures fails to account for unexpected future costs.

In a representative democracy it is necessary to trust your representatives. If the populace doesn’t like the tax rate, or feels that the state is misspending money, then elections are the cure. Forcing the legislature to govern with one hand tied behind its back is asking for prolonged and unpopular budget crises. If the populace doesn’t like how Democrats prepare the budget, then they will stop electing them.

Update: See Robert in Monterey at Calitics reacting to an article in the Monterey Herald. He also makes the point that the rising health care costs of an aging population aren’t reflected in a spending cap based on population growth and inflation.

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