July 16, 2009

Only Five Ways To Reform California's Recurring Budget Crisis

On NPR today, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown places the blame for the budget crisis on term limits. Brown says that the people in the Legislature today do not want to work with each other because they have not had a very long time to work together. Therefore, the other kind of political price they might pay – a loss of standing or respect with their colleagues – is taken away because they aren’t with their colleagues long enough for a loss of standing or respect with them to matter very much. There’s something to what he says.

But term limits aren’t the root of the problem. At minimum, the phenomenon that Brown is talking about is a byproduct of that problem. True, the members of the Legislature have no stake in one anothers' political success. But the reason for that is not term limits. Gerrymandering is the source of this, and many other problems that have come together in the budget crisis. And the Democrats have only themselves to blame for that since they control that process with an iron fist.

You’ll recall a while back I suggested that political gerrymandering is done most effectively when you concentrate the opposition party into as few districts as possible – this creates a situation where the partisan representation of those districts is very one-sided. Recall that in that post, I hypothesized a state that had 2,000,000 voters, with 50-50 registration between Democrats and Republicans. It would be possible to draw the lines of the districts to create two districts with 95% Republican registration and eight districts with just under 39% Republican registration, producing a slate of eight Democrats and two Republicans.

In such a hypothetical state, what kind of Republicans do you think those two members would be? Their districts, made up of functionally no Democrats, would not need to reflect any Democratic-friendly ideas whatsoever, so these two Republicans would be very, very conservative. And they would be approximately accurate in reflecting the overall political sensibilities of their districts in doing so.

Now, let’s think about this in practice. In a heavily-gerrymandered state. (Like there is any other kind.) A state I’ll call… California. California’s Legislature is divided into two houses – an 80-member Assembly and a 40-member Senate. The Assembly consists of 49 Democrats, 29 Republicans, one independent,* and one vacancy which will be filled with a Democrat on September 1.† The Senate consists of 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

That gives Republicans 36.7% of the votes in the Assembly and 37.5% of the votes in the Senate.‡ Democrats have a very comfortable operating majority and no particular need to moderate their politics because their re-election is pretty much automatic.

But here’s the rub. California has a requirement that both houses of its Legislature must pass a budget by a two-thirds margin. Right now, 53 Assemblymembers and 27 Senators must agree on a budget. That means that if Republicans keep tight party control, they can stop the budget from going through.

This is one of the many reasons why we do not have a budget right now: Republicans will not vote for any budget package that includes any tax hikes. In so doing, they are accurately and faithfully representing the wishes of their constituents.

Their constituencies are, through the process of gerrymandering in a firm Democratic operating majority, jam-packed with Republicans. In nearly all of their districts, Democrats are such a small minority that it’s a wonder there are any general election challenges at all.

California Republicans have effectively zero political penalty to pay for obstructing the budget from going through, but they would have a high political price to pay for agreeing to a tax increase. That is the basic mechanism behind the Republicans’ remarkable feat of party discipline, which in turn, is a critical component of the budget deadlock we’re in.

The problem, then, is built in to the system. There are five, and only five, possible resolutions to this situation.

First, Democrats could cave more than Republicans and agree to more spending cuts and fewer (if any) tax increases. In other words, the crisis gets solved when the Republicans win and only if they win. But that would mean that nearly half of the total Democratic slate would have to cave to Republican demands for this to happen. This would mean a massive betrayal by a a significant number of Democrats in the Legislature of the political incentives that are motivating their votes. So this is the least likely of all of these scenarios. It is also contra-majoritarian, in that if Democrats have a majority and are a majority of the voters (both of which are true) in theory their policies should prevail.

Second, Republicans could stop opposing the Democrats' desire to solve budgetary problems by raising taxes. The Democrats currently need to “pick off” two Senators and four Assemblymembers for this to happen. In other words, Republicans can solve the problems by altering their policy platform. But, thanks to the polarizing dynamic of gerrymandering, the political price that these Republicans would pay for their switch would be very high – they would certainly face primary challenges and be likely to lose them. In a very real way, the only way a Republican incumbent can lose a primary challenge is to vote for a tax increase. The only Republicans who could consider doing this would be ones who both are being termed out of office in the next election cycle, and who do not believe that they have a reasonable chance of a political future beyond that. There are not currently enough Republicans meeting that description to get us through the current deadlock and as a systemic matter, there never will be because looking at the built-in political incentives takes us past the immediate concerns of the current officeholders.

Third, the rules could change. If some way around the two-thirds rule is found, then Democrats could simply roll over the Republicans with a simple majority vote, which they already have. However, they would still face the problem of a potential veto of their budget by Governor Schwarzenegger – and that would require a two-thirds vote to override, putting them back in the same position they are in now. So unless the two-thirds budget rule and the veto rule both change, this is not a viable option for getting out of our current scenario.

You would be right to point out that a veto isn’t an issue if the Governor is a Democrat because a Democratic Governor would be unlikely to veto a budget passed by a Democratic Legislature. But to get around the two-thirds budget rule to pass it in the first place would still require a Constitutional convention. Such a convention would be bogged down by all sorts of other matters, including revision of Prop. 13, disputes about abortion and same-sex marriage, term limits, campaign finance reform, revenue distribution reform, and a galaxy of other issues. The last time a Constitutional convention was convened in California, in 1879, it was done by a mere 152 delegates who met in Sacramento for half a year. An attempt to reform the Constitution as a whole was barely approved by the Legislature and authorized by the voters 1933 by a very slim margin, but the next Legislature failed to pass enabling legislation and therefore no convention was organized. All subsequent attempts to call conventions have failed for a variety of reasons, ultimately coming down to a lack of political will by the electorate to reform the Constitution. So I’m not real optimistic about this option: too many hurdles to overcome, too many political footballs to fumble.

Fourth, the district lines could be redrawn and a new Legislature elected, with more blended constituencies and therefore a different and more moderate set of political incentives. This could go one of two ways. There would be more Republicans in the Legislature, but they would represent more moderate constituencies, and the Democrats (likely still a majority) would also represent more moderate constituencies. The electoral dynamic would encourage compromise and moderation. That sounds pretty good, at least in theory. But before you sign off on this as the best possible result, remember that if this were in practice right now, it would mean more spending cuts and higher taxes. Maybe you’re like me and think that’s the inevitable result anyway.

If you’re like me you also think that the degree of one-party rule we’re already subjected to is already bad enough. But then again, maybe you’re not like me; you might think the problem is that we don’t have enough Democrats in power here in California. And that brings me to the last possible resolution.

Fifth, we could re-draw the lines so that they are even more gerrymandered than they are now. Rather than creating more moderate, blended districts, this school of thought says that the districts should be even more polarized than they are now. If there were 14 Senate districts and 27 Assembly districts of rock-solid, conservative-to-the-core Republicans, they would all vote “no” on the budget and it wouldn’t matter because the Democrats would have a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature and be able to pass whatever budget they wanted, over the Governor’s veto if need be.

These are your options, my fellow Californians. There are no others. Choose, or perish.

* Juan Arambula of Fresno left the Democratic party and became an independent about three weeks ago. Arambula had been what passes for a “pro-business” Democrat here; he left the Democrats because he thought they wanted to raise taxes and regulate businesses too much. He is also ineligible to run for re-election in 2010, having been first elected to the Assembly in 2004.

† Mark Ridley-Thomas was a Democratic member of the State Senate who won election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in November of last year. Curren Price, a Democratic member of the Assembly whose district overlapped Ridley-Thomas’, was appointed to take Ridley-Thomas’ place in the Senate, and Price’s seat remains vacant. All of these districts are in and around the area of the city of Inglewood. A Republican couldn’t get elected there if he personally bribed each and every voter in the district. Non-Californians should note that Ridley-Thomas would rather have been a Los Angeles County Supervisor than a State Senator. Much more power. Also, no incumbent has been thrown out of office from the Supervisorial Board since 1980.

‡ Compare this to
overall California voter registration, which as of the 2008 election was 43.9% Democrat and 32.3% Republican. The remaining 23.8% of California voters are not registered in either major party and most of them are independent rather than third party members. Democrats have 58% of the voters who select a partisan registration.

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