At the beginning of this year Governor Jerry Brown and California's legislators faced a $26 billion budget deficit. The governor and legislators reached an agreement which closed about half of the budget deficit with spending cuts, but are at an impasse about how to close the other half of the budget gap. Brown, having pledged not to raise or extend taxes without a vote of the people, proposed an election that asked voters whether they would agree to temporarily increase temporary vehicle and sales taxes set to expire in June 2011. The problem is it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to put such a vote to the people, and Brown has thus far been able persuade two Republican members of the Assembly and the Senate to cross the aisle and vote for such a plan. There is some disagreement as to exactly why negotiations broke down. Republicans wanted to submit at least two other questions to the voters, whether to implement a cap on future state spending, whether to reform pensions for state workers, and whether and how to streamline regulations.
Where are we now?
After weeks away from the bargaining table, Brown now seems eager to deal. Last week Brown asked Republican lawmakers for specific proposals, claiming that Republicans had previously had a forever-evolving list of demands. GOP legislators responded that they had proposed concrete, specific solutions to solving the budget gap. In sum, our representatives appear about five minutes away from a sandbox fight that commences with the perennial favorite, "I'm rubber, you're glue."
In my not-so-humble opinion, I really don't care much if Republicans did or did not previously present specifics. I care about whether our elected officials can do their jobs and close our budget deficit.
What do the voters care about?
Last week, results of a Los Angeles Times/USC poll showed that almost two-thirds of voters want to vote on Brown's plan to extend temporary tax increases, while only about one-forth to balance the budget with more spending cuts that would include deep cuts to school funding. Brown will likely use the poll to push his proposals. Public opinion seems to be changing in his favor, as in November almost half of respondents wanted to balance the budget with spending cuts. In addition, more than half of respondents said they want to weigh in on tax increases.
Republicans can also take some solace in the poll's results. Four out of five respondents support a limit on state spending, and seventy percent favor a cap on pensions.
Should we care what the voters think?
Our government is, I believe quite wisely, not one of direct democracy. Our representatives should remember their role in our representative democracy and not legislate based on public opinion polls.
While voters have little faith in their elected officials (the poll shows about one in five voters approve of the legislature's job performance), they may have an inflated faith in themselves. Only about one in six respondents to the Los Angeles Times/USC poll knew that the state budget has decreased by billions of dollars over recent years. Half of respondents thought the budget had grown during the recent period of deep spending cuts. However, three-fourth of respondents said they followed the budget debate. There is clearly a disconnect there.
Where do we go from here?
Allow me to posit that the answer to a lack of faith in our elected officials is not to solidify our faith in ourselves. The solution is likely more complicated. We somehow need to elect public servants invested in "smart" public policy. Of course, what I consider to be good public policy could be my neighbor's idea of a catastrophe.
Still it is worth exploring long-term questions about the structure of our government and the way we elect our representatives. For instance, are super-majority requirements, which require two-thirds of both legislative houses to agree to tax or fee increases detrimental or beneficial? Do term limits force out legislators with helpful expertise, or do they work to bring new, fresh ideas to the legislature? How much has ballot box budgeting accomplished through the initiative process tied the hands of our elected officials? Are there campaign finance reforms that could help elect better-qualified legislators?
Voters have already approved of a number of reforms that could change the composition the legislature. We will soon change the way we elect our representatives, by implementing an open primary, top-two general election system. The purpose of this reform is to elect more moderate legislators, more likely to be willing to reach compromises on a myriad of issues, including the budget.
In addition, an independent redistricting commission will soon re-draw legislative district lines. Unlike legislative lines drawn by legislators ten years ago, this purpose of this plan will not be to keep legislative districts as safe districts for sitting legislators, but will instead be to keep communities of interest together. This could lead to more competitive elections.
In the meantime, the next big hurdle will be for Brown and current legislators will be to try to balance our state's budget.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.