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Mark My Word
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From Sacramento to Your Neighborhood
By Mark Leno, Assemblyman, District 13

The Need to Fix California's State Budget Approval Process

As our state legislature continues to struggle with the passage of its annual budget, it is too easy for many of us to forget that millions of children, elderly, poor and disabled Californians are already experiencing significant hardship in their lives as a result of the delay. Medi-Cal funds have been frozen. Child care providers, adult day care centers, medical transport services and hundreds of hospitals are currently not receiving the state support upon which their budgets have been designed. Even California’s 72 community college districts will have to do without an expected $327 million.

So why is it that over the past 20 years our legislature has missed its deadline of a signed budget by June 30th thirteen times? As noted recently in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, California is one of just three states in the nation, Rhode Island and Arkansas being the other two, which requires a super majority vote of 66% to pass its budget. This means that one-third of the legislature can literally veto that which two-thirds desires. The United States Congress passes its budget with a simple majority vote. The California State Association of Counties and the California League of Cities confirm that not one of our 58 counties and few if any cities have a similar requirement. With nearly every state in the nation and all of California’s local governmental agencies eschewing this super majority threshold, why do we require this added burden of our legislature? Why do we continue to allow the demands of a small minority of lawmakers to halt the governmental operations of the eighth largest economy in the world?

The answer to the first question is steeped in Great Depression era history. In 1933, voter passage of the Riley-Stewart amendment significantly overhauled the state’s fiscal system. The centerpiece of the amendment dealt with taxation but it also impacted the budget requiring a two-thirds majority vote for budget passage when it grew more than 5% over the previous year. As the economy returned to long periods of expansion, the super majority threshold became the status quo leading voters to drop the 5% growth formula in 1962, leaving us with our current predicament. Clearly it is time to revisit this historical anomaly. Additionally, it was Proposition 13 in 1978 which added the two-thirds majority requirement for the passage of any tax increase.

The answer to the second question is both easier and more complex than the first. We continue to allow for this minority tyranny simply because voters have not reversed the decision made at the ballot box in 1962, though not for lack of trying. In 2004, Proposition 56 would have lowered the majority to pass both the budget and tax increases to 55%. Did voters not understand the poor reasoning and dangerous unintended consequences of the two-thirds requirement or were they concerned that by lowering the necessary percentage to 55% their taxes may have more readily been raised? My guess is that both suppositions are likely true. Certainly the opposition’s 15 second television commercials stating that “if you want Democrats to raise your taxes, vote for Proposition 56” played to that fear. Of course, no party in Sacramento would cavalierly raise taxes, for the ramifications of such an act could be devastating in the next election. How to explain to voters in a brief commercial the impact of our 66% requirement is a much greater challenge.

Depression era policy making haunts us to this day. Clearly, voters need to be better educated about the operations of their state government but how is that accomplished with an ever more disenfranchised electorate? Can the internet and blogosphere help us in this task? Would a grass roots campaign of town hall meetings or an investment in educational television spots grab voters’ attention?  The people need to know how out of step California is with the rest of the nation and even with its own local governments.  Even conservative leader Senator Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, supports scrapping the two-thirds vote requirement in favor of a simple majority so that the party in power is held completely responsible for the budget.

The idea that a single legislator of the minority party can cause such suffering to millions of Californians is appalling. Maybe if the deadlock continues for another month or two, recognizing the risk that would present thousands of social service providers, voters will more quickly understand that it is time to change the way we do business and enter into the 21st century.

Bio & Past Articles

Past Articles

Betty's List 'Mark My Word'
Columnist Assemblyman Mark Leno

Assemblyman Mark Leno made history in November 2002 when he was elected as one of the first openly gay men to the California State Assembly, representing District 13, the eastern portion of San Francisco. He currently serves as Chair of the Public Safety Committee, one of only four freshman legislators appointed to Chair a policy committee in their first year. He also serves on the Appropriations, Local Government, and Revenue & Taxation Committees and is the Chair of Select Committees on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LBGT) Families and Childhood Obesity & Related Diabetes.

A native of Wisconsin, Leno attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, then went on to become valedictorian of his graduating class at the American College of Jerusalem, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree. Leno also spent two years in Rabbinical Studies at Hebrew Union College in New York.

Prior to his election to the State Assembly, Assemblyman Leno served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from April 1998 to December 2002. He authored landmark legislation in the areas of affordable housing, universal health care for children, solar energy, late night entertainment, bond oversight, small business services, City CarShare, medical cannabis, equal access to services, and LGBT civil rights.

Leno is the owner of Budget Signs, Inc., a small business he founded in 1978 and operated with his life partner, Douglas Jackson. Together the two entrepreneurs steadily grew their sign business until Jackson passed away from complications relating to AIDS/HIV in 1990. This deep loss would not deter Leno. Instead, he redoubled his efforts in community service.

He has served on the boards of many local and national organizations including the LGBT Community Center Project, Haight Ashbury Community Services, the American Jewish Congress, Mobilization Against AIDS, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. He is the recipient of the 1995 Small Business Owner of the Year Award from the Small Business Network, the 1995 Hormel Community Service Award from the Human Rights Campaign and the James R. Sylla Award from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

Outside of his capacity as an elected official, Leno has been a tireless supporter of nonprofit organizations in San Francisco, frequently appearing to show support at events and lending a hand wherever possible. He was a statewide spokesman for the No on Prop 22 Campaign (the Knight Initiative) and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August 2000.