Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Deadlock and Disaster

California is now projected to have a $42 Billion budget deficit over the next eighteen months. That is an enormous shortfall. The legislature is meeting in special session but has been unable to fill the hole. California is one of the few states that requires a 2/3 supermajority to pass a budget, but the parties have been unable to reach a compromise.

Although Democrats have strong majorities in both houses, they remain a handful of votes shy of the votes required to pass a budget by themselves. But the Democrats refuse to make crippling cuts in health care and education, while the Republicans refuse to raise taxes--and the two parties cannot borrow their way out of the problem this time because, in order to win the voters' approval to borrow their way out of the last fiscal crisis, they had to add a provision to the referendum that forbade a repeat performance.

The 2/3 supermajority requirement was intended to force compromise, but instead has created total deadlock in Sacramento. The effects are being felt in every county and city. So much is on the line, from police, to roads, to schools, to basic food, shelter, and health care for millions of people! And pretty soon, the only government employees able to draw a salary will be the state legislators themselves. (Naturally, the only agreement the two parties have reached so far is to reject legislation that would have docked their own salaries.) The legislature was so polarized this year that their original budget was the tardiest in history--and now even that herculean effort was for nothing. The system is so close to breaking you can feel it.

One might hope the voters could just "throw the bums out" but exquisite gerrymandering has led to a situation where nearly all seats in the Assembly and State Senate are safe. Worse still, since in most districts the primary election is the only one that matters, candidates must play to the bases of their parties, pushing them to the extremes rather than drawing them to the middle. (Fortunately,
Californians are trying a new redistricting system starting in 2010 which will at least lead to different problems instead of the usual.) And as if all that were not enough, strict term limits have ensured that legislators have little experience, little opportunity to make friends across the aisle, and little strength with which to buck their party's power structure.

Things are so bad that I would call for a State Constitutional Convention, except that would require a 2/3 vote of the legislature--and if they could muster a 2/3 vote, they could pass a budget. When both sides of the State legislature hold their breath until they pass out, is there any recourse except remedial Federal action? Is there even such a thing? What can we do if the legislature simply refuses to pass a budget?


Bert Q. Slushbrow, Sr. said...

"When both sides of the State legislature hold their breath until they pass out, is there any recourse..."

Yep. Pick their pockets.

Raised By Republicans said...

"One might hope the voters could just "throw the bums out" but exquisite gerrymandering has led to a situation where nearly all seats in the Assembly and State Senate are safe."

As I see it the problem California has is that it is impossible to pass a budget that contains a big response to big problems (such as the $42 Billion short fall) without 2/3 supermajority control by one party or the other.

How would ending gerrymandering get us closer to the 2/3 majority control required?

As I understand Dr. S. argument about district boundaries, he's no so much concerned about the odd shapes per se but the ideological implications of having the districts designed to favor incumbents. If we force the districts to be more ideologically representative of a random selection of Californians (at least locally), wouldn't we expect the balance of power in the Democratic majority to get smaller not larger?

Now, it's possible that this change would make the politicians more centrist and less ideologically polarized. Generally, I'd be all for a legislature with a stronger center. But that's because I generally like moderate solutions to problems. But with a $42 Billion deficit, I'm wondering if the kind of solution a bunch of centrists would come up with would do anything other than chip away at this deficit.

This is what has me thinking that the problem isn't the gerrymandering but the 2/3 requirement which Dr. S mentions earlier in the post.

Anonymous said...

Long term, I think the real solution is to repeal and/or greatly modify Prop. 13 so we can have a decent tax base. Of course, this idea is about as popular as a snowball on the north side of Hell...

-Seventh Sister

The Law Talking Guy said...

It's not clear, RBR, that the districts are gerrymandered in CA to favor Democrats. They are gerrymandered to favor incumbents. This means that there is no chance the voters will punish the Republican minority for its intransigence or the Democrats for their inability to get things done. So we elect 64% Democrats, not quite 2/3, and nobody has any incentive to change positions. I think what Dr.S is trying to say is that if the gerrymandering were less horrific, there might be some on both sides more concerned about trying to something more than just please their party base.

The Law Talking Guy said...

A state constitutional convention might be easier to get than a budget, since that could be a way for Republicans to embarrass Democrats (by having a failed convention) and it doesn't cost the constituents anything in terms of money or taxes to do so.

We desperately need constitutional reform in CA. For reasons that are somewhat technical, I would not advocate throwing away the document, but amending it. This is because some of the earlier legislative history on civil liberties is quite useful to keep.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I might not have made it clear: I think the 2/3 supermajority rule is clearly not working and needs to be replaced with the 50% + 1. I was just trying to explain why the system, which used to work at least somewhat acceptably to force compromises, is now broken. The culture and character of the legislature is different, thanks to term limits and extremal-favoring redistricting.

I certainly agree with RBR that the districts are designed to favor incumbents. But I agree with LTG that this arrangement does not necessarily favor the Democrats.

For the 2008 general election, there were estimated 23,208,710 eligible voters and 17,304,091 registered voters in California. These were split 44.4% DEM, 31.4% REP. Because we elect using a winner-take-all system, if every district reflected the state as a whole, we would end up electing nearly 100% Democrats.

Geographical distribution is (of course) critical. Consider the 1992 and 2008 California State elections in terms of: percentage of voters registered (Reg), percentage of all votes cast in all Assembly elections (VAs), percentage of all votes cast in all State Senate elections (VSn), number of Assemblymen elected (Asm), and number of State Senators elected (SSn). Here are the figures for comparison.

Reg: DEM 49.1 | REP 37.0 (D+12.1)
VAs: DEM 50.7 | REP 42.0 (D +8.2)
VSn: DEM 45.4 | REP 44.5 (D +0.9)
Asm: DEM 48 _ | REP 32 _ (D =60%)
SSn: DEM 25 _ | REP 15 _ (D =63%)

Reg: DEM 44.4 | REP 31.4 (D+13.0)
VAs: DEM 55.5 | REP 42.8 (D+12.7)
VSn: DEM 54.8 | REP 41.6 (D+13.2)
Asm: DEM 51 _ | REP 29 _ (D =64%)
SSn: DEM 25 _ | REP 15 _ (D =63%)

Well, it's a lot of figures, but here is what I see: we have a Bluer state but not a Bluer state legislature. Party registration is a bit more favorable to the Democrats now, and Democrats won considerably larger victories in terms of the raw number of votes, and furthermore the Democrats won control of the redistricting this time--but the net result was the Democrats still ended up with just about exactly the same number of seats as before. (In fact, the 2006 numbers were precisely the same.)

Raised By Republicans said...

Thanks for the numbers Dr. S. I never would have guessed that the trend was bluer among voters than among the assembly in the presence of aggressive gerrymandering. My official response is: "Huh, son of a gun."

Of course the geographical distribution of that increase in the Democratic vote could be such that areas that used to be a little bit blue are now a deep shade of indigo. If that's the case, then removing the gerrymandering could have consequences that are difficult to anticipate.

In any case, we're all agreed that the 2/3 majority issue is the biggest problem here. Chalk one up for direct democracy!

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Of course the geographical distribution of that increase in the Democratic vote could be such that areas that used to be a little bit blue are now a deep shade of indigo."

Probably so. In 1992, 45 of California's 58 counties had more registered Democrats than Republicans. In 2008, only 28 counties had more registered Democrats than Republicans. It is difficult to predict what the new redistricting plan would do.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. your report about the counties could indicate that the polarization of the legislature reflects the reality of the population of voters.

Dr. Strangelove said...

That may well be true, RbR, but I don't think I see it yet in the county figures. It would appear that Democrats are more concentrated now than before--probably higher numbers in urban areas, one would imagine--while apparently the Republicans are more spread out across rural areas. But that does not mean to me that either group is more extreme in their views.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You have to remember that the aggressive gerrymandering in California was not of the sort where one party tries to maximize its winnings by spreading favorable voters to form thin majorities in as many districts as possible. Rather, in California the incumbents of both parties conspired to remain in power by concentrating like-minded voters within their own districts.

Raised By Republicans said...

"But that does not mean to me that either group is more extreme in their views."

Sure it does. Your argument about the ills of gerrymandering is that by concentrating like-minded voters within the same districts, you get incumbents who only have to appeal to the base. If this concentration is also being accomplished just by the natural changes in the population distributions then the gerrymandering is not a necessary condition for the polarization problems we observe in the California legislature.

In fact, to correct it - which I gather is your ultimate goal - we should not so much abandon gerrymandering but engage in a different pattern of aggressive gerrymandering, complete with bizarrely shaped districts, to break up the concentration of liberals.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I see your point. I misunderstood your claim. When you wrote above that the polarization of the legislature, "reflects the reality of the population of voters" I thought you meant that the voters themselves had become more polarized: i.e., that the liberals were more liberal and the conservatives were more conservative--or that moderates were a dying breed in California. That is something I do not see.

It is known that the California legislature redistricted to protect incumbency--a rather unusual form of gerrymandering, I think--and the tortured shapes of the districts we have suggests that this was not easy. In other words, this suggests compact and contiguous districts would not have produced quite the extremes we see, doesn't it?

Raised By Republicans said...

Right, I was thinking of polarization of the electorate with regard to their geographic distribution.

Incumbency protection and districts that don't require cross over appeal to win may be independent issues.