When it Comes to California's Budget, Who Will Take The Initiative?

Jerry Brown

Eons and eons ago, the earth cooled and Governor Jerry Brown brought forth his budget proposal. Brown proposed closing California's roughly $26 billion (yes, with a "b") budget gap with approximately 50% spending cuts and 50% temporary extension of temporary taxes. Thus far the legislature has essentially agreed to the first half, and not the second. Most agree that while it now takes only a simple majority of both houses of the legislature to pass budget, it will take a two-thirds vote of our lawmakers to put the temporary tax extensions to a vote of the people.

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What is a governor to do? Brown has winked, nodded and hinted that he will consider bypassing that group of citizens we call our representatives and take his temporary tax extension proposal directly to the voters. How will he do this? He'll support the circulation of a statewide ballot initiative. If Brown pursues the ballot initiative route, voters will likely have the chance to weigh in on the budget in November.

Circulating a statewide ballot initiative was not Brown's preferred path. Instead he wanted the legislature to agree to call a June special election to vote on the tax issue. It has proven problematic, and perhaps will be impossible, to obtain the requisite number of republican votes to garner the two-thirds majority needed to put the tax question to the electorate.

While using the initiative process would allow Brown to bypass the legislature, it will eliminate any veneer of bipartisanship the Brown's tax proposals had and take much longer to pose the tax question to the voters (as time is required to circulate the ballot measure petition). The time lag is significant for at least two reasons. First, the law requires California to balance its budget by July 1, and Brown's budget proposal hinged on the state having the revenue from the tax extensions starting on the date of the special election. Even if a November ballot initiative passed, there would be months of revenue lost.

Second, the temporary taxes that Brown suggests extending expire in June. That means that a ballot initiative supported by Brown will relate to tax "increases" rather than "extensions." As I've previously noted, this semantic distinction could make an enormous practical difference for the success or failure of Brown's budget package.

It remains to be seen whether Brown's hints at circulating a ballot initiative are real, or are being discussed as a bargaining chip, in an attempt to get Republican lawmakers to the table. If Brown's temporary tax extensions do not pass, the spending cuts could promise to be twice and deep, and likely twice as painful.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday at noon. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user ohad*. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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