State Party Must Focus on Ending “Two-Thirds Rule”

by Paul Hogarth on March 16, 2009

As a delegate to the upcoming California Democratic Convention, I attended a regional meeting this weekend – where candidates for Party Chair, Vice Chair and Controller came to give their pitch. But I heard very little about what should be the Party’s top priority for the next year: scrapping the “two-thirds rule” that has let right-wing extremists hold our state hostage. A measure to bring the budget threshold down to 55% will probably be on the June 2010 ballot, and public disgust at our fiscal mess gives us a golden opportunity to pass it. Instead, candidates focused on defeating an “open primary” in June 2010 – and how important it is to start the legwork now to prevail. The open primary is a bad idea, but our much greater threat is the state’s inability to pass a budget. Ironically, the open primary was only placed on the ballot to get GOP State Senator Abel Maldonado’s vote on the budget – a deal that would never have been necessary without the “two-thirds rule.” Meanwhile, Democrats appear confused about how to handle a more time-sensitive issue: the May 19th special election, in part because Schwarzenegger skillfully pitted liberal constituencies against each other. It’s time for the Party to get pro-active, and focus its energy on ending the “two-thirds rule.”

Although a bare majority of voters can change the state Constitution, California is one of only three states that require a super-majority of its legislature to pass a budget each year – and raise taxes. California is a solid blue state, which means Democrats should be able to implement their agenda. But Republicans, relegated to permanent minority status, still control 37% of the legislature – and jealously guard the only power they have left. Each and every year, they’ve refused to pass a single budget with any tax increase whatsoever – bringing Sacramento to a standstill, and forcing the state to take imprudent moves like borrowing money. With the severe recession wreaking havoc on our finances, this was the year when all hell eventually broke loose.

Democrats are in agreement that we must eliminate the “two-thirds” rule, but it has to be done intelligently – and resources need to be thrown behind it in order to win. It will face a predictable round of attacks (e.g., “don’t make it easier for politicians to raise taxes!”), and we need to be pro-active and pre-emptive. A half-hearted attempt to bring the threshold down to a simple majority failed in March 2004, and every effort must be made to scrutinize what went wrong. Doing it at 55% for budgets and taxes is a reasonable compromise, and a recent poll shows that it’s winnable. Ending the “two-thirds rule” has not been a popular idea before, but right now – with the budget crisis – may be the only time we could ever get it passed.

Has the Party poured enough resources into making this a reality? Our legislative leaders in Sacramento were slow at getting the ball rolling. A political consulting firm has been hired to start gathering signatures for an initiative, but it’s already too late to have it qualify for the upcoming special election. Our best hope is to have it on the June 2010 ballot, and folks like State Senator Mark Leno are determined to make it a reality. That’s still more than a year away, and the opposition hasn’t started their “no” campaign yet. But it’s a lot easier to defeat a Proposition than to pass it, meaning the “yes” side needs to raise money now to prevail.

Instead, I go to a California Democratic Party meeting – and everyone wants to talk about convincing Californians to vote “no” on the “open primary” proposition in June 2010. Ironically, that fight wouldn’t exist if we did not have the “two-thirds rule” to pass a budget. The legislature agreed to put the “open primary” on the ballot – to get Republican State Senator Abel Maldonado’s vote for the budget, giving them the two-thirds required to end the impasse. Maldonado was afraid that voting for tax increases would be political suicide; arousing the wrath of right-wing radio shock jocks, and dooming him in a closed Republican primary. He wanted an open primary, so Democratic and independent voters could “cross over” and save him.

The threat of an “open primary” has spurred the state Democratic Party into action. Vice Chair Alex Rooker sent out a mass e-mail, where she made a compelling case about why it must be defeated. “It opens up the process to game-playing by Republicans,” she explained, “who want to crossover vote to elect weaker candidates, or stop progressive candidates from getting to the General Election … If two Democrats are on the General Election ballot, the less progressive candidate (who could not win in a normal primary) would be carried to victory by Republican votes in the General Election. In other words, the candidate selected by the most Democrats to be our nominee would be defeated!”

I don’t disagree with anything Alex Rooker said. California had a variation of the “open primary” from 1996-2000, and enough Marin County Republicans crossed over to elect Joe Nation to the State Assembly. And this new “open primary” actually resembles the Louisiana jungle primary – in which two candidates of the same party could face off in November. “If this had been in place in 2008,” said Rooker, “we would have had 10 Democrat-on-Democrat General Election battles – keeping us locked in intra-party battles, while Republicans could put all their resources into competitive elections … Our Party needs to win more legislative seats.”

But I didn’t join the Democratic Party just to turn more seats “blue.” At the end of the day, I want to see a working progressive majority in California that can implement laws and pass budgets that are compassionate. An “open primary” would certainly make it harder to expand a Democratic majority – but what good is a majority when the “two-thirds rule” gives the minority of right-wing Republicans free reign to hold up the state budget? Reacting against a bad proposition is easy, but it takes a lot of work to build public support behind a good proposition – pro-actively affecting the state’s future.

While the state party is ready to do battle and oppose an “open primary” in June 2010, what to do about May 2009 is a different story. As part of the budget deal (where the “two-thirds rule” required Democrats to make awful concessions), the legislature put six propositions on a special election ballot for May 19th. Prop 1A is a spending cap that would put the state in another fiscal straitjacket, but its defeat would mean that Prop 1B – which guarantees school funding – would also fail. As Eric Baumann (who is running for Party Vice Chair) pointed out, this was a move by the Governor to divide two of the largest labor unions – SEIU (which opposes spending caps) and the California Teachers’ Association.

When labor and the Democratic Party unify against Schwarzenegger (like they did in the 2005 special election), it was a formidable coalition. But it’s unclear what the State Party will do – if anything – about the May 19th election. The Assembly Speaker and Senate President appear to support it, but the Democratic caucus in the legislature is deeply divided over Prop 1A. Some union officials, like the assistant director of AFSCME, are urging their members to oppose it. But many Democrats in the Capitol are advising that a “no” campaign is reckless, as they say it would endanger the state budget that just passed.

California is in dire straits, and much of the blame can be pointed to the “two-thirds rule.” The state Democratic Party is in a unique position to harness the energy of grass-roots activists – coupled with the resources of labor unions – to bring about positive change for the state. It’s their job not only to build an infrastructure to win elections, but also to help persuade Californians on how to vote. We will hopefully get the chance to end the “two-thirds rule” in June 2010. For California Democrats, that means work has to start now.

Paul Hogarth will be a delegate to the California Democratic Party Convention in late April, representing the 13th Assembly District.

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