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Unraveling 13

Proposition 56 seeks to reduce the state's legislative supermajority

By R. V. Scheide

Since passing in 1979, Proposition 13, popularly known as the property taxpayers' revolt, has been the third rail of California electoral politics. To touch it--to even mention touching it--was political suicide. This era of seeming inviolability may come to an end if voters pass Proposition 56 on the March 2 primary election ballot.

Dubbed the Budget Accountability Act, Proposition 56 seeks to lower the Legislature's threshold for passing the state budget and budget-related tax increases from the 66 percent established by Proposition 13 to 55 percent. It would also penalize the governor and Legislature for missing the June 30 budget deadline--which has occurred 11 times in the past 17 years--forcing them to postpone time off and to work without pay until the budget is passed. The initiative also requires that up to 25 percent of any excess state revenues be set aside in a reserve fund.

But first voters have to pass it, and that is by no means a sure thing. A Field Poll released Jan. 15 found that 37 percent of registered voters support Proposition 56, while 36 percent oppose the measure. A substantial number of those polled, 27 percent, were undecided. Both proponents and opponents of Proposition 56 recently began airing statewide TV commercials for what promises to be the most contentious battle of the primary election.

"Anything that weakens Proposition 13 can't be a good piece of legislation," said Fred Levin, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association. "Proposition 56 opens a Pandora's box for legislators to increase taxes or create new taxes."

Other opponents of the measure include the California Taxpayers' Association, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and local chambers of commerce from across the state. According to the secretary of state's office, opponents have raised $3.1 million so far, much of it from oil, tobacco and alcohol interests that fear such products may be subject to new taxes.

Meanwhile, supporters have raised $2.9 million, nearly half of which was spent on the petition drive that placed the proposition on the ballot in the first place. Donors include the California Teachers Association, the California State Council of Service Employees and other public-employee unions, whose members have a stake in the state's budgetary process. In addition, cities and counties across the state have endorsed the measure, including the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Other North Bay politicians have also come on board.

"I support it," said Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-Sixth District, whose constituency includes Marin and southern Sonoma counties. "Hopefully, it will end legislative gridlock. I think 55 percent is reasonable."

Ending legislative gridlock was far and away the overwhelming reason given for supporting the measure.

"It's absolutely necessary," said Larry Robinson, a Sebastopol City Council and Green Party member who strongly supports Proposition 56. "The two-thirds requirement allows a minority to dictate policy and essentially hold the state hostage."

Currently, 14 states including California have so-called supermajority requirements to raise taxes, ranging from 60 percent to 75 percent of their respective legislatures. The Washington, D.C.-based conservative organization Americans for Tax Reform claims that supermajorities continue to enjoy 70 percent nationally, but it's unclear if other states have experienced the same kind of gridlock as California.

Seventh District Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, who represents all of Napa and parts of Sonoma and Marin counties, recalled how the two-thirds supermajority requirement stalled the budget last year. In June, she and other Democrats refused to support a budget with any cuts to MediCal, the state's perennially strapped public-health program.

But by September, the conservative-led Republican minority, which refused to vote for any new taxes, forced Wiggins and her colleagues to accept a budget that cut MediCal by 5 percent. She thinks a lower, 55 percent supermajority would help protect programs like MediCal while providing enough restraint to prevent legislators from irresponsibly raising taxes.

"There are limits to what you can do with the 55 percent vote in the assembly," she said. She called the addition of the 25 percent reserve requirement to the initiative "sugar, so that the public will see that there will be some kind of reserve. Otherwise, there's a fear that the Legislature will run rampant."

That's a fear espoused by Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association's Fred Levin and other opponents of Proposition 56.

"It's a deceptive measure," Levin said. "It pretends to discipline our people in Sacramento, but instead rewards them with a blank check."

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From the February 19-25, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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