California: Ruined by the Supermajority

Requiring two-thirds approval to pass budgets and other legislation has not made California more democratic.
May 30, 2010 |
For more than 30 years, powerful interests have sought supermajority protections for themselves in majority vote elections. In the process, these interests, with the assent of a self-destructive electorate, have created a supermajority-saturated state Constitution that makes California virtually impossible to govern.
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You don't need to know anything about electricity to understand what's wrong with Proposition 16, the initiative sponsored by the parent company of the Northern California utility PG&E, on the June 8 ballot. You only need to know California's tortured history with supermajorities.

Proposition 16 would establish a new supermajority requirement in the state Constitution by mandating that local governments get approval from two-thirds of their voters before starting or expanding a public power agency. Proposition 16's text, and the website of its sponsors, embraces the conventional wisdom that supermajorities are essential to preventing government from taking on debt, ensuring local control and promoting democracy and the rights of voters.

Of course, Californians, if they so choose next month, may approve Proposition 16's supermajority with a simple majority. This is depressingly familiar. For more than 30 years, powerful interests have sought supermajority protections for themselves in majority vote elections. In the process, these interests, with the assent of a self-destructive electorate, have created a supermajority-saturated state Constitution that makes California virtually impossible to govern.

Supermajorities tie the hand of majorities and the politicians they elect. Worse, California's multiple supermajorities, in combination, spread the very diseases their proponents claim to be protecting us from. California's supermajorities have added to spending, boosted the state's debt, reduced government accountability, robbed local communities of control over their own destiny and made the state's political system less democratic.

The best known of these supermajorities are the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget, approved in a 1933 ballot measure, and Proposition 13's requirement of a two-thirds vote for a tax increase. California was the first state to have these dual supermajorities. And despite our role as a shaper of American style, technologies and trends, no state has followed our lead in this regard. Governmentally, California is the guy wearing green polka dots.

Mandating supermajorities has obscured responsibility for California's ills and prevented political accountability. Without the two-thirds budget vote requirement, whatever party has the majority would legitimately get the blame when state finances go south or taxes get too high. But in a two-thirds system, no one may fairly say that a budget belonged to one party or the other.

In practice, the minority party — Republicans for 30 of the 32 years since the passage of Proposition 13 — has used its leverage to block the budget until the majority Democrats meet a list of demands. Many of these demands involve cutting taxes or increasing spending for GOP-favored programs, on top of whatever spending Democrats have insisted on. To pay for it all, the Legislature has leaned on questionable borrowing and accounting gimmicks. The result: huge and persistent budget deficits.

"Although conventional wisdom indicates otherwise, the two-thirds vote requirement does not seem to limit higher levels of spending," the California Constitutional Revision Commission wrote in its 1996 report. "In practice, it encourages it."

Worse still, supermajorities breed more supermajorities, with interest groups seeking shelter from the supermajority budget wars by trying to add their own supermajorities.

The transportation lobby, with Proposition 42, persuaded voters to require that taxes on motor vehicles be spent on transportation, unless two-thirds of the Legislature votes to suspend or modify. In 2004, local governments won a rule that protects much of their funding unless two-thirds of the Legislature says otherwise. And most destructively, Proposition 98, approved by voters in 1988 at the behest of the education lobby, created a complicated education funding formula that has nothing to do with education and may only be turned off by a two-thirds vote.

Other supermajority propositions are cousins to Proposition 13, restricting local taxation (Proposition 62 in 1986 and Proposition 218 in 1996). As a result of those measures, most local special tax and bond measures in California require two-thirds voter approval, thus permitting minorities to frustrate the majority will of individual communities.

Proposition 16, using the old "one bad supermajority deserves another," cites these local supermajorities as precedent for the two-thirds it requires. PG&E also offers a parity argument: Because California law already requires a two-thirds vote to sell a public power agency, mandating a two-thirds vote to create one is only fair. Since two wrongs don't make a right, the better solution would have been to push an initiative to eliminate the existing supermajority on utility sales, rather than add another to it.

Instead, PG&E, in its TV ads for Proposition 16, has conjured a reality in which up is down, down is up, and anti-democratic supermajorities that restrict local control actually protect local control and democracy. The Proposition 16 website claims that two-thirds votes "foster transparent and open debate about the potential benefits or risks of a project," despite clear evidence that they make government opaque and inflexible. Even more laughable, the website says that a two-thirds supermajority "reduces the likelihood that one generation of voters will pass along ill-considered, crippling financial obligations to subsequent generations." Yeah, right.

Setting democracy's bar higher than a simple majority vote can sound like a good idea; it was sold to Californians in 1933 as a way to encourage consensus and defeat partisanship. But the math just doesn't work out that way, a fact that our state has proved spectacularly. None of this would have surprised this country's founders. They considered, and rejected, proposals to require supermajority votes in Congress for budgets and ordinary legislation; instead they reserved two-thirds votes only for enormous actions of the state — the approval of of constitutional amendments, conviction in an impeachment trial, ratification of treaties and the override of a presidential veto.

In Federalist 58, James Madison condemned the supermajority for the power it would give to narrow interests. "An interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal," he warned, "or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences." 

The supermajority protection in Proposition 16 is another unreasonable indulgence — for a state that already has overindulged.