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Can We Stop the Budget Blame Game?

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Can We Stop the Budget Blame Game?

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California state Sen. Robert Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) holds his head in his hands during a budget negotiating session of the state Senate on Feb. 17, 2009 in Sacramento.

As usual, the budget is late and the blaming has begun. The governor blames the legislature (and puts up a running tally of the costs of delay). Legislative leaders blame the governor. Politicians of one party blame politicians of the other.

It's time for California's leaders to stop playing the budget blame game.

Now, the problem with the game isn't the nastiness (politics has always been nasty), or that they're poisoning the political waters (those waters are already toxic), or that it's an affront to bipartisan compromises (such compromises are understandably rare in an era of highly polarized voters and parties).

No, the problem with the budget blame game is that it's misleading. It feeds the public misperception that the actions of particular individuals are the reason for budget delays and other bad budget news. Change the people in office and you change the budget outcome, this argument goes.

The truth is harder. The politicians aren't to blame. The budget system is.

California is the only state to require a two-thirds vote for passing the budget and for raising taxes. Getting a two thirds vote on budget items in a place as complex as California is so difficult that it would be a surprise if the budget process weren't late and filled with acronomy. Inevitably, two-thirds vote requirements create a process in which the minority party withholds its votes and makes demands until the majority party bends and pays up. This form of negotiation, by definition, requires patience from the minority party and a willingness to wait things out.

Getting a two-thirds supermajority vote is doubly difficult when you realize that California's election system, with single-member districts represented by the one person who wins the most votes, is designed to make legislative majorities. In other words, we elect majorities to the legislature -- but require the assembly of supermajorities to govern.

This is a budget system at war with itself.

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