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Decline and Fall.

February 14, 2009, 5:05 pm

California’s lawmakers meet tonight to try to resolve the worst budget crisis in the state’s history.  For more than six months, the majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have tried to win the support of three Republicans in each house of the Legislature, which they need for the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote to approve the budget. As a result, the California budget has been held hostage for more than half a year by six members of the minority party.

Why is California the only state besides Rhode Island and Arkansas to require a supermajority to pass its budget? As Fred Silva explains in this excellent article in Western City magazine, the two-thirds requirement emerged out of a state funding crisis in the Depression.  After voters rejected an initiative authorizing an income and sales tax, public officials wrote a constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to raise taxes and, at the same time, established a tight spending limit for state government.  The amendment stipulated that the spending cap could be lifted by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.  In 1962, voters approved a new initiative that eliminated the spending cap but required a two-thirds vote for every budget.

The pressure on the Democrats to compromise on the proposed budget is tremendous.  As the crisis continues, state workers have taken a 10 percent pay cut, construction work has halted on aging bridges and crumbling roads, and schools and universities have laid off instructors and slashed their expenses.  The pressure on Republicans to compromise is nil. There are few competitive legislative districts in California.  This means that the Republicans have no incentive to compromise on spending or taxes; indeed, such a compromise could well doom their careers. Each day that passes without a budget helps to “starve the beast,” which serves their ideology and helps their political futures. (Ironically, though, as the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the Republican districts receive far more in state services than they pay in taxes.  What’s the matter with Fresno?)

As a result, we sit and await the Legislature’s vote on what nearly everyone agrees is a terrible budget, with tax increases for ordinary Californians but windfalls for multinational corporations; with the prospect of short-term revenue increases offset by the potential long-term disaster of a new, permanent spending cap.

The University of California will survive the crisis, in part because only about a third of its budget comes from the state.  But its incoming students will be forced to work more hours to pay for their “tuition-free” education (there’s still no tuition at the UC; only “fees”);  and they will come from increasingly impoverished, struggling schools.  Thus does the best public university system in the world – the democratic, meritocratic dream of the late Gov. Pat Brown, with his master plan for free higher education for every accomplished California child — continue its slide into mediocrity.

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