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Facade of a government building, California State Capitol Building, Sacramento, California, USA
California Republicans, as they can do under the state's fiscal rules, are hostage takers. They make lists of demands, and use their leverage -- primarily under the requirement of a two-thirds vote for new taxes and fees -- to press for them.
A question for California's would-be reformers: why let the GOP legislators have all the fun?
There's no good reason why those who know the state needs constitutional reform, both inside and outside the government, can't use the fiscal rules to do the same thing. In fact, the concern about this year's budget could be leveraged for constitutional reform -- just as Republicans are seeking to do.
Would-be reformers would be criticized for this, and would pay a political price. (Democratic leaders would likely try to punish any legislator who made such demand by busting them to a smaller office or taking away committee assignments). But the cause of reformers would be just -- and any punishment would bring badly-needed attention to their cause. Remember: No matter what happens with this year's budget -- whether there are temporary tax extensions or even bigger cuts -- the state will still be stuck in its current fiscal and governance crisis next year. The crisis is a product of the broken constitution, with its inflexible initiative rules and all the different super-majorities and spending mandates that make budgeting so difficult.
So here's a way out: Start with a clear demand for constitutional reform. My preference: that the governor and legislature must support a top-to-bottom constitutional revision process, either by appointing a commission or calling a constitutional convention. A commission, if appointed, would have to have the power to submit what it produces to voters for an up-or-down vote.
Yes, this would require a two-thirds vote. But so does any budget in our current fix. Raising revenues would require two-thirds, which means that a single Democrat, just as much as a Republican, can make this ransom demand. And if taxes are off the table, cutting the budget would require a suspension of fiscal rules like the Prop 98 education funding guarantee--which also is a two-thirds vote.
This could be a particularly effective strategy -- precisely because the ability of a reformer to take hostages would show the need for reform. When challenged and criticized, the talking point would be obvious. "Yes, I am exploiting California's broken constitutional system and fiscal rules. The difference is that I'm doing this in service of fixing this system -- so this kind of hostage taking could never happen again."
The path is clear. Does anyone out -- either a legislator or an interest group with leverage over a legislator -- have the guts to back it?