The Three Pillars of Dysfunction in California’s Government:
1. Term limits for the legislature
2. 2/3rds majority requirement to pass a budget
3. The proposition system
John Lennon once quoted Harry Nilsson, who obviously had a Yogi Berra moment when he said “Everything’s the opposite of what it is, isn’t it?” So goes for our current system of governance here in the state of California. Three well intentioned, artificial constructs created to combat the corruptions of their day share an equal part of the blame for the impasse in getting any significant business done today.
Term limits, originally enacted in 1990 on the premise that we would be rid of “career politicians” like Willie Brown, have brought us a revolving door of career politicians. Legislators now have to stay in the good graces of their party machinery so that they can run for the next seat up the ladder that comes open after they’re termed out. You can forget anything but ideological grandstanding by a merry-go-round of — mostly — nobodies.
One needn’t look any further than how hard it was to get anyone to cross the aisle for the emergency budget plan passed this past February, in particular, among Republicans. Think Abel Moldonado has any chance of moving up the GOP food chain now? Fat chance*.
The 2/3rds requirement to pass a simple budget was a change in the State Constitution originally enacted to thwart the New Deal agenda by Republicans and conservative Democrats, who were the majority in California during the 1930s and fearful the Roosevelt surge would take root in Sacramento. The rule was strengthened in 1962 during Pat Brown’s reign, again as part of that dreadful Prop. 13 in 1978 and finally, in 1996, when Prop. 218 passed and all remaining “loopholes” to the rule were “closed.” The 2/3rds rule essentially means that the minority party is given a handicap of 1/6th of the vote, for no reason other than this stupid rule, enacted by way of our third great pillar of dysfunctional governance:
The proposition system.
Officially known as the initiative process, this “fourth” branch of government dates back to the Progressive era, where a movement towards direct democracy coalesced against the disproportionate influence of monied interests, such as the Southern Pacific Railroad, over the legislature. An amendment to the California Constitution established this process in 1911, but the increasing reliance on referendum democracy dates back to more recent decades, into what is now termed by some as the “Initiative Industrial Complex.”
“Everything is the opposite of what it is.” This is the legacy direct democracy hath wrought: a system where democracy matters most, the passing of undemocratic rules in a series of short sighted attempts to, apparently, save democracy from itself.
Today, our Governor can’t get the legislature to do much, so time and again he opts for the ultimate cop-out: Let the voters decide. Which begs the question, “Why then, do we have a legislature?” If you look through the amount of hyper-specific, complex, and sometimes contradictory propositions that have passed over the years, it’s a wonder anything gets done in this state. This explains the low turnout in yesterday’s special elections and, one can hope, the roots of a movement for a way out of this.
Government works best when there are checks and balances, not artificial constructs and governance by way of the immediate passions of the day. Just imagine if all of our laws were decided by propositions or referendums. Do you think the U.S. Constitution and system of government would have survived this long?
The odds are long, however, at getting anything changed. The only way we can abolish term limits, the 2/3rds rule and the current proposition system is through a Constitutional Convention, ultimately at the mercy of, yep, you guess it, a 2/3rd majority vote. Fat chance.
But consider this: If things continue on their current course, it won’t be long before the voices calling for a split-up of the state once again take center stage in the current political debate. Nothing solves a problem like smacking it with a blunt instrument—or slashing through it with a scythe. Will the outcome be any different this time? I’d say the odds are 50/50.
*9/28/10 Update: Ok, so I was wrong about that one...
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