08/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two-Thirds or No Two-Thirds is California's Question

Budget stalemates, IOU's, forced furloughs for state employees, and recently defeated propositions have revived discussions, particularly by the Democrats in the California Legislature that the two-thirds majority vote required to pass a state budget is the albatross that hangs around their necks.

This antiquated requirement, which has been a part of California politics since 1934, simply gives the minority of the Legislature too much sway over budget matters. California is just one of three states that requires a two-thirds majority.

Given the size of the California GDP, imagine if Spain or Canada required a two-thirds majority in their respective legislatures to pass a budget. How effective could these countries run with that requirement?

The two-thirds vote, in theory, designed to promote compromise, has instead fed the systematic dysfunction. Voters consistently say they want bipartisanship and compromise from their representatives, but in California the mechanisms are firmly in place to achieve the opposite--leading to stagnation and gridlock.

With only a rudimentary understanding of democracy, how can one-third of the Legislature be allowed to hold the state hostage? In this context, it is easy to assume the Republican legislators do not take their responsibilities seriously, preferring to represent obstruction than compromise.

Demographics indicate the state's Republicans Party is a diminishing portion of the electorate. Maybe Democrats can just wait them out and within a decade or so; they will have the requisite majority to get a budget passed on time. As easy as it is to blame Republicans, let us not assume if the Democrats were the minority party with the existing laws things would be different.

This is the 23rd consecutive year California has failed to meet its constitutionally mandated budget deadline, enough for reasonable persons to conclude something is not working.
Why is it too much to desire a state legislature function in the similar manner of 47 other states by embracing a form of democracy that requires the radical, cutting edge notion of majority rule on budget matters?

A statewide poll by the Public Policy Institute of California earlier this year found that a majority of voters, 53 percent, favored lowering the budget threshold from 66 percent to 55 percent.

Let's assume momentarily the required two-thirds majority to pass a budget is eliminated or lowered to 55 percent, then what?

It would be premature to celebrate the end of gridlock in the state because there is another two-thirds majority vote required on any revenue increases courtesy of Proposition 13. And unlike the polling in support of lowering the two-thirds requirement on the budget, there does not appear to be public support, at least at present, to do away with the two-third-majority vote portion of Prop. 13.

The two-thirds requirement for revenue increases may also be as antiquated as the requirement to pass a budget, but the electorate sees these things very differently. Since passing in 1978, any type of reform associated with Prop.13 has been a nonstarter.
But any reform effort to remove only one of the state's two-thirds vote requirements does little to lift California out of its dysfunctional quagmire.

Decades of reactionary propositions that bring its unique set of unintended consequences are now coming home to roost. Any discussion of reform that does not peel back the layers of the problem in a comprehensive way is simply window dressing.

While I don't see proponents of Prop.13 willingly examining the parts that are problematic for the state, the same hold true for say, Prop.98 supporters or the myriad special interest on both sides of the political aisle who recognize there is a problem but not willing to compromise on their issue.

So if you want to end gridlock do away with the two-thirds requirement for budget agreements and then revamp the portion of Prop.13 that requires two-thirds majority to raise revenues.

Not that this would represent that end of the reform efforts needed in the state, but it could end these annual budget stalemates. If you don't wish make the tough reform choices IOUs, furloughs, draconian cuts to public and higher education, as well as the social safety net, and cuts to other services stand to be the rule rather than the state's exception going forward.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his website: