Misunderstanding What Went Wrong With Prop 25

Joe Mathews

California's best-known commentators -- including Dan Walters and George Skelton -- are now thundering about the supposed abuse of Proposition 25, the initiative that restored a majority vote to pass a state budget, by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats.

The criticism around Prop 25 stems in large part by a Democratic manuever to move Brown's temporary tax initiative to the top of the ballot via a so-called "trailer bill" tied to the budget.

But there's some trouble with the commentators' accounts of the trouble with Prop 25. They misunderstand what was wrong with the initiative -- in a way that will make reform harder.

Specifically, commentators are chafing at how the legislature and governor used the greater discretion provided by Prop 25. And they are suggesting limits be put on that discretion.

That's wrong.

The legislature and governor, hamstrung by all kinds of constitutional rules, initiatives and court decisions, do need more discretion. But they also need electoral accountability, which they don't have.

Such accountability wasn't in Prop 25 -- which is why the real problem with Prop 25 wasn't actually Prop 25 at all.

The policy of having a majority vote for the budget is a good one.

The problem was that Prop 25, like all ballot initiatives, was disembodied and unconnected to any grander vision of reform.

In California's complicated system, changing just one thing -- even if the change is a good one -- is going to create all kinds of unexpected problems. 

In this case, Brown and the Democrats used the majority-vote budget power to make a major, problematic change in the initiative process -- giving an advantage in ballot listing to constitutional amendments, even though California's too-long constitution doesn't need more amendments.

You can bet that, in the future, this power will be used for other things that work against reform.

It's a reminder that one-initiative-at-a-time reform -- the style favored by all right-thinking people and good government groups in California -- is very high-risk. The lower-risk option is full constitutional redesign, via a commission or constitutional convention.

Indeed, there was one thoughtful, handsome commentator who made this very point -- and saw that Prop 25 would create trouble -- before it was passed.

On Oct. 29, 2010, the week before the vote on Prop 25, this commentator wrote in a piece called  "The Trouble With Prop 25"

California governing system is so broken that it’s possible to vote for an initiative that advances a good policy and still make things worse. Prop 25 is such an initiative. Context matters, and Prop 25 is, unfortunately, out of context. And thus it’s unlikely to make the budget process any better. In fact, it’s a safe bet that Prop 25, if enacted, would make the budget process more dysfunctional – and make reforming it more difficult.

That same dashing commentator also explained that a majority-vote budget didn't make sense without reforms that would make the Democratic majority more accountable -- by giving minority Republicans a better chance of winning back the legislature if budgeting went badly. He explained then:  

In short, putting the majority in charge of the budget (and all fiscal matters) is a good idea. But the idea won’t work until California adopts an election system that permits voters to hold the legislative majority accountable. We don’t have such a system now. Our legislative elections
are fixed. No matter who draws the lines, our election system guarantees that Democrats will be in the majority. 

That’s why getting rid of supermajorities must be paired with major election reform that makes every vote count and gives voters the power to kick out the majority party when it doesn’t perform. The best way to do that is by creating a larger legislature elected in multi-member districts through elections that rely at least in part on proportional representation. Under such a system, all voters would be able to vote directly for the party they want in the legislature.

That brilliant commentator was, of course, your blogger. Bookmark here if you want to know the future.

Read more here by clicking on Dan Walters' recent column in the Sacramento Bee.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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