Senators: Not so fast on California Forward

A lengthy debate over a package of bills encompassing California Forward’s proposal for state budget reform ended Monday with Senator Denise Ducheny (D), chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, granting the committee a couple of weeks to study the ideas before coming to a decision.

“We need time to process these ideas and see if there are pieces of this we want to put up for a vote on the (Senate) floor,” Ducheny said.

At times during the hours-long hearing, the debate grew lively and informal, with as many as three people – a presenter and two senators — talking over each other at the same time. There were plenty of opinions and analyses of the proposal.

California Forward, an organization backed by prominent nonprofit foundations in the Golden State, had been working for some time to draw up a package of reforms to help California improve state governance by streamlining the state budget process.

Key parts of the proposal include:

• A reduction of the two-thirds, super-majority requirement needed before the Legislature could pass a budget. (This proposal does not lower the threshold for taxes.) Ducheny and others acknowledged that rounding up two-thirds of the Legislature’s vote was so difficult that it often led to deal-making, trade-offs and budget gimmickry. It also tended to give more power to the hold-outs not in the majority. “It just seems weird that a small number of people can dictate what the larger number of people can do,” Ducheny said.

• A requirement for “pay-go,” or identifying a secure funding source before any new programs are adopted by the Legislature or Administration.

• A requirement that the gubernatorial budget proposal contain more information so Californians would know exactly where their tax dollars are going.

• An option to develop a two-year budget cycle for California, rather than the current one-year budget that doesn’t take full account of the impact of actions into the future.

• Financial penalties for legislators for each day the budget is late past a June 25th deadline. Lawmakers would get pay cuts and lose per diem allowances if they don’t agree on a deal by the deadline. Senator Mark Leno (D) warned that the threatened penalties could backfire, encouraging legislators to hastily adopt even less responsible state budgets. Likening the scheme to a “quid pro quo” system, Leno said, “It’s not so much that you vote for this or you won’t get paid. It’s that you vote for this and you will get paid. I think that’s the dynamic that would be in place.”

Several legislators appeared to be in favor of modifying the two-thirds vote requirement that currently exists for a budget to be passed.

Said Leno: “There are 47 states in the nation without this requirement. City councils, boards of supervisors, local school boards – none of them require the supermajority. What is the public policy argument that keeps California from adopting a 60 percent majority vote?”

Ducheny said she favored a 55% majority vote to pass the state budget. “In truth, the two-thirds requirement has caused us to do things in trade-offs that were not sound public policy,” she said. “That’s why we borrowed so much. That’s why we rely on gimmicks so much.”

Senator Robert Dutton (R) of Southern California said tying the Legislature up in knots in state budget negotiations year after year has prevented lawmakers from addressing the true, deep problems that California faces in job loss and loss of competitiveness.

“We’re going to have to do a lot better than we’ve done,” Dutton said, invoking a pet phrase, “We’ve got champagne tastes and a beer pocketbook. There’s not one thing we are doing today to help jobs, the economy and programs.”

Many groups tended to like specific elements of the proposals and but were concerned about other parts. Several conservative-oriented groups–the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the California Taxpayers Association, the California Manufacturers Technological Association–supported parts of the package.

Among the last to speak on the proposal was Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project. Ross’ assessment was that the proposal was too flawed to go forward, in part because it fostered a lack transparency and accountability, and added additional complexity and constraints to our already confusingly large constitution. “As so many here today have already said,” Ross told the committee, “the devil is in the details.”

Senator Ducheny wondered if some of these reforms had to be written in the state Constitution, rather than done in statute, so as to reform the process without handcuffing future legislatures to respond to unforseen circumstances.

More to come, in just a few weeks…

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