California’s perennial struggle to balance its state budgets has national importance. Among the issues with which the nation’s most populous and socially diverse state is grappling are:
How to define and pay for quality public education.
How to sustain a safety net for the economically desperate
in a period of shrinking state and local revenues.
How to overcome structural obstacles to efficient budget making.
The resolution of these and other issues could have significant political, economic and social impacts across the country in the years ahead.
California’s fiscal process, as well as its social priorities, will have a lot to do with this and future years’ mix of service cutbacks and new taxes and fees. Since the 1930’s, California has been Constitutionally required to adopt the state budget by a two-thirds Legislative majority. Because of a 1978 initiative statute, the Legislature must also agree on any new taxes by the same supermajority. Thus, in recent years disproportionate influence over these decisions rests with a minority of tax and spending-averse conservative Republicans, in spite of large Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature and a 44 to 31 percent Democratic advantage in the state’s electorate.
But do California voters want to change the rules to adopt state budgets and to make it easier to pass new revenue measures? Recent public opinion research says, “No”, as shown in the first three sets of bars in the graph below. This explains, in part, why California is having such a difficult time balancing its 2009-10 budget. However, the fourth set of bars, on the far right, suggests that under certain circumstances Californians might support raising revenues.
It would seem that California voters are much more likely to end the two-thirds supermajority for new taxes if the lesser vote requirement were to apply to issue-specific local taxation proposals. Thus, California may eventually see financial responsibility for education, public safety and social welfare — which in the past three decades has been increasingly concentrated at the state level – devolve to local governments, where voters seem to feel more immediately connected and believe there would be greater accountability. If this devolution occurs in California, it could be echoed in other states, much to the inconvenience of national policy makers and interest groups, which look to state government as the principal conduit for Federal aid and support.