A moderating influence

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Proposition 56 supporters promise less "partisan gridlock" if voters lower the threshold needed to pass a budget in Sacramento from two-thirds of the state Assembly and Senate to 55 percent.

Opponents counter that there would be less gridlock because state lawmakers would happily raise taxes.

So the Proposition 56 folks came up with some gimmicks to entice voters fed up with politics as usual. One provision would revoke the pay of legislators for every day they miss the budget's ostensible June 15 deadline. Another would make legislators work until a budget is passed.

The problem is that it is bad budgets -- not late budgets -- that have been the bane of California.

Despite the gimmicks, I found myself taking a fresh look at the measure.

On the yes side: One of the contributing factors to the gridlock in Sacramento is that checks and balances allow politicians to point at what the other guys are doing wrong instead of hammering out a deal.

Veteran political correspondent Martin Nolan wrote a terrific piece in the California Journal in which he warned that the two-thirds threshold could make it almost impossible for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to pass a budget if a rump of Republicans decide to block any budget that raises taxes. Ditto some of the Democrats who might block needed budget cuts.

I suspect that if the threshold to raise taxes were lowered to 55 percent, Democrats would raise taxes so fast and furiously that voters would think twice before sending big-spending Democrats to Sacramento.

On the no side: The California economy could tank.

What to do? I decided to call some of the rare Sacramento politicians who try to work with members of the other party and ask them how they plan to vote.

Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, surprised me when he said, "I haven't broadcast my position. I'm not supportive of Proposition 56." On a philosophical level, the two-thirds requirement doesn't bother Canciamilla; it's what would happen if it were lifted that scares him.

Lawmakers would push for tax hikes. The pressure on the governor would be overwhelming. So, first, legislators would raise taxes on tobacco, alcohol and the affluent. But it wouldn't stop there, Canciamilla continued, because raising the "sin'' taxes and increasing taxes on the rich don't "generate much income."

"It will get us into a death spiral," he said and likely would result in an end to the Democratic majority within four years -- OK by me -- as well as passage of a new initiative to limit taxes a la Proposition 13.

Canciamilla added that he tried to think of what it would be like to be in the minority if the Republicans were in power. In that event, he is not sure that GOP lawmakers would listen to him, a Democrat, without the two-thirds requirement.

Former GOP Rep. Tom Campbell made a similar point when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he enjoyed working in the Legislature because "there my voice counted. They needed my vote. The two-thirds requirement is a moderating influence.''

Canciamilla wouldn't say that he would never change his mind. "Perhaps my view will change in a couple of years if we have an open primary, if we have an independent redistricting," he mused. (Both of those changes should elect more moderate lawmakers from both parties, so that the Legislature would better reflect the political center of California, not the extremes.)

Until that day, the status quo makes more sense.

Think of how quickly state pols spent California into the red, despite a two-thirds threshold. As GOP consultant Sean Walsh observed, "You can get into trouble very quickly."