Better Than Now? Sneaky Trick? The Prop 25 Debate

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AP/Rich Pedroncelli

Call it an electoral mnemonic device that wasn't supposed to be: when voters go to the polls Tuesday, it will be exactly 25 days since the state's tardy budget was signed into law... and it will also be the day they decide the future of the budget process with Proposition 25.

Everyone seems to agree Prop 25 will change the budget process and, though it sounds hard to believe, everyone also seems to agree that Prop 25 has flaws.

Opponents say it goes too far; most supporters, if they're honest, think it doesn't go far enough.

On this week's newsmagazine edition of The California Report, we take a look the 'majority vote budget' ballot measure through the lens of reforming governance (a special news project of ours here at KQED).

And here's the thing that's hard to miss: few people seem to say they love Prop 25. It's either too timid or too sneaky, depending on which side is doing the lamenting. That being said, the official supporters of Prop 25 say it's an important step to unclogging the mess that pops up every year in enacting a state budget.

No Budget (Vote), No Pay

The signature sweetener that Prop 25 adds to enacting a budget with a simple majority vote in the Assembly and Senate is the provision that strips the pay of legislators for missing their (currently almost always missed) June 15 constitutional deadline. Prop 25 says: any year in which the budget bill is not passed by the Legislature by midnight on June 15, there shall be no appropriation from the current budget or future budget to pay any salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses for Members of the Legislature during any regular or special session for the period from midnight on June 15 until the day that the budget bill is presented to the Governor.

But there are two things worth noting. First, what's to stop a majority of each house's legislators from casting a vote for even a budget that's undeniably a placeholder, just to avoid the pay penalty? Not Prop 25, according to Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor.

"That can fairly easily be circumvented by just passing some budget by June 15," said Taylor at a recent legislative hearing, "even if it's not signed by the governor."

No doubt such a move would be panned in the press, and probably used against sitting legislators when Election Day rolls around. So while possible, it seems improbable.

But there's also a legal question here, and for this one you have to return to 2009's agonizing budget standoff. There, the 'no pay' provision of Prop 25 was one of the original demands of then Senator, now Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado in exchange for his vote on the spending plan. But in the wee hours of the morning, I was told by top legislative aides that attorneys said a ban on pay was illegal under certain labor laws, and would never pass legal muster. You can bet there will be a legal challenge to this provision should Prop 25 prevail on Tuesday.

The Taxes & Referendum Allegations

The official Prop 25 opposition campaign has largely chosen to attack the measure not on its face -- shouldn't we make on-time budgets easier to achieve -- but rather on language it believes proves the initiative is a Trojan horse for more taxes and less voter input.

Simply stated, opponents dispute Prop 25's stated guarantee that it doesn't touch the Proposition 13 supermajority vote for a tax increase. They have attempted to make the argument for a few months that a tax increase could be buried inside one of the numerous 'trailer' bills attached to the budget, which would be able to be ratified by a majority vote. It's worth noting that they lost a court fight over this issue in regards to Prop 25's ballot title.

Opponents also believe Prop 25 will neuter some of the current powers of the voters to overturn legislation by referendum. Bottom line: passage of Prop 25 will likely mean some more court fights, but that's not unusual when it comes to initiatives. And on the tax issue, the worst case scenario could only come to pass if a governor goes along with it... and even then, the earlier stated wrath of the voters would be hard to avoid.

Speaking of Taxes...

There are some natural supporters of budget reform who don't seem so thrilled with Prop 25 for the express reason that it doesn't remove the supermajority vote for taxes.

In a legislative hearing last month, several legislators were almost dismissive of the measure. "If people want a budget on time, make this a majority vote state," said Assemblymember Charles Calderon (D-Montebello).

Even a Republican agreed with that sentiment. "If you want to make the majority party responsible for the budget," said Assemblymember Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia), "you need to give them the full panoply of responsibility so that the voters will have a decision to be made."

Reality check: removing the Prop 13 tax language is a political non-starter. Just ask the campaign team that watched 2004's Proposition 56 go down in flames, a similar but broader measure that attempted to set the budget and tax votes in the Legislature at 55%. Ironically, the 'no more two-thirds' measure was rejected by... wait for it... almost two-thirds of voters.

What's the Real Problem?

And a final dig at Prop 25 comes from those who say the budget vote, by and of itself, isn't the problem. Journalist and reform advocate Joe Mathews struck this note Friday in an online column:

What's more likely is that Prop 25 will pass and the budget process will remain a mess -- because of all the supermajorities that remain in place, all the voter-approved spending and tax formulas that constrain the legislature, and the partisan nature of the legislature. Voters might well conclude: "well, we passed Prop 25 and that didn't make anything better. So maybe the two-thirds supermajorities aren't the real problem with the budget system."

A similar tone was struck in the aforementioned legislative hearing by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor. "In the '80's," he said, "we had budgets that were fundamentally on time...and some might argue there are much fewer consequences now than the perception was back in the '80's." Taylor went on to say that far fewer of the state's payments, back then, were still made in the absence of a budget -- unlike now.

Nonetheless, advocates insist Prop 25 is better than the status quo, a bottom line they say voters need to think about come Tuesday. Polls have shown Prop 25 dangerously close to either winning... or losing. It's one of the ones to watch on Election Night and if it passes, one of the ones to watch when put into practice for what's expected to be another gruesome budget season in 2011.

Here's the audio from my radio story:

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • CAup2here

    Labor laws? Seriously. Most state legislators have other paying jobs. These roles would be considered management, not labor.We shouldn’t be paying salaries for them to campaign for themselves and others for the next go-round of them representing other interests than constituents, mainly their own.