Today, Governor Schwarzenegger will announce more budget cuts in his “State of the State” address – and we all know it will be worse than a Terminator sequel. Advocates for the poor and disabled are bracing for more IHSS cuts, and a coalition of 22 groups have called on Democrats
to stand firm. But where we really need the energy right now is gathering signatures to repeal the “two-thirds” budget rule – which would bring some sanity to Sacramento. And with a new generation of college students galvanized by draconian cuts to the UC system, there is simply no excuse not to have a grassroots army to qualify a measure for the ballot. There are indeed proposition efforts in circulation, but we haven’t seen enough money put down yet to make it serious. And progressives are getting bogged down in a distracting battle – on whether to just reform the budget process, or to also extend a majority rule to revenue as well. Just like the effort to repeal Prop 8 in 2010 or 2012 has been unproductive, so has this one.
In 1976, the United Farm Workers collected 720,000 signatures in less than 30 days to put Proposition 14 (labor law reform) entirely with volunteers. In other words, getting enough people involved in the process – and using this critical moment of the budget crisis (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sinking popularity) is doable, and winnable. So why aren’t we being harassed by volunteers at every Safeway to put it on the ballot?
Back in July, I argued that a political strategy
to end the “two-thirds” rule required going outside of Sacramento – and making it about the real-world consequences of the budget cuts. As long as voters think it’s an easier way for politicians (who they hate) to “raise taxes,” we are going to fail. An earlier effort in 2004 to do that had TV commercials with legislators in a food-fight. It didn’t work
As a UC Berkeley graduate, I was both saddened and heartened to watch students occupy Wheeler Hall last semester to protest the UC Regents’ plan to hike tuition by 31%. It was maddening to see a once-public university system stripped to the bone, and I was glad to see the campus not take it lying down. But I was mostly depressed because I knew they were fighting a lost cause. The two-thirds requirement to pass a state budget and raise revenue is what’s caused the mess we’re in, and they were just battling the symptoms.
There are efforts to repeal the two-thirds budget rule by a voter-approved constitutional amendment, so why aren’t we seeing the same students enlisted to organize the signature gathering? I ran many voter registration drives on the Berkeley campus in the Nineties, and we got over 1,000 students per week. More recent efforts by there have been more successful. If we need to collect a million signatures statewide, it’s time to get busy!!
But I’m seeing progressives divided on what is the better approach. State Democratic Party Chair John Burton has read the polling data, and argues that lowering the bar for taxes as well will not succeed. If there’s a serious effort to scrap two-thirds, it is likely to only be a measure that deals with the budget. Such a change would allow the legislature to raise fees (like the Vehicle License Fee), but would keep tax increases at two-thirds.
Linguistics Professor George Lakoff is gathering signatures
for a measure that would be more inclusive, and has offered to reframe the argument. His initiative, which is only 14 words, would read: “All legislative action on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.”
I like the linguistic approach that Lakoff takes, because most voters don’t even know that currently the state budget has a two-thirds requirement. Out of context, a “majority vote” sounds a lot better than lowering the bar to pass a budget. The problem is, the Attorney General’s Office (which must clear ballot measures for circulation) changed the wording title
from “raise revenues” to “raise taxes.” And in this economic climate, where nobody has money, we can’t have a title that says “raise taxes.”
But rather than fight about which way to end a tyranny of the minority in Sacramento, I’m not seeing much activity on either side of the debate. And with California becoming ungovernable and another round of budget cuts as inevitable, there’s simply no excuse.