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Advice to the Legislature--Change the Rules

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    NEWSLETTERS

     Barring an upset in a special election to fill a vacancy, California Democrats will have a full two-thirds majority in each chamber for at least the next two years.

    It's the first time since 1978 that either party has enjoyed that exalted one-sided domination over the other.

    You may recall that when Californians passed the famous/infamous Proposition 13 that year, the initiative contained a provision that required a full two-thirds vote from the legislature to raise taxes.

    That provision, more than anything else, has made it almost impossible ever since to add new revenues.

    The most recent election results now afford that possibility, assuming the Democrats remain united--an assumption that should never be taken lightly when discussing Democrats in California! No doubt, liberals concerned about the state's weakened social welfare safety net are already preparing dozens of tax proposals to meet those needs.

    Should the Democrats succumb to such requests, their tenure will be brief. Despite passage of Proposition 30, Californians are not fond of raising taxes. Rather than address unpopular causes, the new Democratic super majority should use its muscle for institutional reform.

    The state Constitution requires that the legislature can submit such proposals with a full two-thirds vote. The Democrats could do the state a world of good by asking the public to end gridlock through changes in the way the legislature operates.

    Chief among those changes would be to constitutionally alter the vote requirements for revenue increases and veto overrides (last managed in 1979), which currently require the full two-thirds vote--at least 54 votes in the 80 member Assembly and 27 votes in the 40 member Senate.

    Two possibilities would be to lower the requirement to two-thirds of the members present or to a full sixty percent of the memberships in each chamber.

    Either one of these modest proposals would go a long way toward ending gridlock, or California's version of tyranny of the minority.

    There is precedent for this kind of change. The U.S. Senate once required a two-thirds vote of those present to end a filibuster, a tool where an individual member or few members talk a bill to death until sponsors drop the measure.

    That threshold allowed civil rights opponents to thwart legislation for decades. When the Democrats gained an overwhelming majority in 1975, they lowered the requirement to 60 votes. The change was rather minor, but enough to allow legislation to flow.

    Today, there are still filibusters, but it's a bit easier to stop them. Of course, there are times where super majorities are necessary for crucial votes, including revenue raising and veto overrides.

    But if the requirement is so great that it impedes all efforts, perhaps it is too high. If the legislature places the full two-thirds issue on the ballot, voters will have the opportunity to consider changing the requirement.

    Passage would go a long way toward making the legislature functional again, something with the potential to last a lot longer than two years.

    Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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