By Mark Baldassare
, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in theSacramento Bee
on January 29, 2009
Despite the governor declaring a fiscal emergency and dire warnings issued by the state treasurer and state controller, Republican and Democratic legislators have been unable to reach the supermajority threshold needed to pass a budget. In the midst of a worsening crisis, this legislative inaction has now claimed its first casualty: public support for the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass a state budget.
The PPIC Statewide Survey taken in mid-January finds for the first time that a majority – 54 percent of Californians – believe that it is a "good idea" to change the two-thirds majority to a 55 percent majority for the state Legislature to pass a budget. Five years ago, California voters soundly rejected an initiative that would have done exactly that. The Proposition 56 vote was 34 percent yes and 66 percent no, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents voting against this change, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. In every PPIC Statewide Survey asking this question since June 2003, fewer than half of Californians favored lowering the two-thirds vote requirement. As recently as May, just 39 percent of Californians said it was a "good idea."
What explains this dramatic shift in public opinion about the supermajority rule? Voters were in a different frame of mind in March 2004: This was in the wake of the Gov. Gray Davis recall that was a byproduct of the state's last fiscal meltdown. In our surveys this past fall, 51 percent of Californians approved of the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was handling the issue of state budget and taxes.
Today, by contrast, 61 percent disapprove of the way that he is handling the state budget and taxes – his highest disapproval rating to date, and close to some of Davis' disapproval ratings back in 2003. But even more dramatic is the current steady rise in disapproval of the Legislature's handling of the state budget and taxes, which reached a historic high of 77 percent in this month's survey.
Since last May, when majorities of Californians still opposed changing the two-thirds vote requirement, the PPIC Statewide Survey has indicated growing support for this change among Democratic (48 percent to 61 percent), Republican (32 percent to 41 percent), and independent voters (48 percent to 54 percent). Today, majorities across most regions, ages and income groups support a lowering of the threshold, as do men and women, Latinos and whites, and homeowners and renters.
This newfound support for changing the two-thirds vote restrictions on passing a state budget comes at a time when Californians are expressing unprecedented worries about the national economy and growing awareness of the seriousness of the state's fiscal situation. Our most recent survey finds three in four Californians saying the state is headed in the wrong direction and that the California economy is going to be in bad times for the next year. Residents are closely following the news about the state budget and saying that the budget situation is "a big problem."
Many Californians are concerned that they will personally experience job loss, and most homeowners are noting the decline in their home values. While they hope for quick action by the federal government in the form of an economic stimulus plan, they are watching their state government stalled in budget talks.
Californians who voted for sweeping national change last fall have found their state in budget reruns again this winter. Public support for changing the two-thirds requirement for passing the state budget is a notable break with the past. Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, California voters have been inclined to add new obstacles to legislative action and take control of fiscal decisions at the ballot box. Through the recent failures of the state Legislature to act during a crisis, voters have turned their attention from political change in Washington to systemic change in Sacramento. Now, when there is a sense of urgency and a search for quick fixes, voters are warming to the idea of an alternative to the annual budget dance that has gone on for too long.