Let Californians vote on 2 budgets - 1 red, 1 blue

Ethan Leib in The San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 2011

Media Source

Chris Elmendorf, Ethan J. Leib
Friday, February 11, 2011

Jerry Brown got it right when he announced that the path out of California's budget morass cannot be chosen without checking with the people. But for check-in to be meaningful, the people need to see alternatives. Republicans must step up to the plate and present a budget of their own. Give the people two budgets - one Democratic, one Republican - and let the sounder one prevail.

Brown certainly has the high ground when he blasts his critics for not producing specific, constructive alternatives to the package of tax extensions and spending cuts he favors. And he deserves every bit of the praise he's received for proposing a credible, serious budget, after so many years in which California politicians have just kicked the can down the road.

But the governor has a problem. Under the California Constitution, his budget package cannot go to the people without first being approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, which means that Republicans can block it. The Republican leadership and top party activists have made it clear that they will crush any Republican who votes to send Brown's budget to a popular vote.

A political party that today has no support among middle-of-the-road California voters - in the last election, every Republican candidate for statewide office was defeated - is thus denying the people of California a chance to solve the state's ongoing budget crisis.

This is bad for Brown, bad for California, and ultimately bad for the state Republican Party, which needs to remake its brand lest it become a permanent minority party.

We think there is a way forward that honors Brown's welcome efforts- and the American tradition of two-party politics. Gov. Brown and the Democratic leadership should make this pledge to California Republicans: If your legislative leaders produce a credible alternative to the Brown budget - one which, in the opinion of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, does an equally good job of balancing the budget without relying on accounting gimmicks and one-time sources of revenue - we will support a bill to put both budgets to a vote of the people. Whichever budget wins more popular support would be adopted.

This would put the lie to the Republicans' posturing. No longer could they excuse their failure to produce real alternatives by whining, "We're the minority party here, we don't have a lot of say." No longer could they indulge in empty rhetoric without spelling out exactly what "waste" they'd eliminate.

Two-party democracy only produces representative, responsive government when the minority party stands as a plausible alternative to the party in power. Otherwise the governing party faces no pressure to behave responsibly.

California needs a better Republican Party, one with a coherent program it can sell to voters in the middle. A rule that in times of crisis enabled California's major parties to present their respective budget visions directly to the people would help.

Going through this exercise would usefully clarify, in the eyes of ordinary Californians, what the minority party stands for. It would also encourage each party to "brand" itself vis-a-vis voters in the middle, lest its budget get creamed at the polls.

California's budget problem is not just a budget problem, it's a democracy problem. A truly sustainable solution would reinvigorate competitive, responsible party politics, not just balance the books for a given fiscal year.

Chris Elmendorf and Ethan J. Leib are professors of law at UC Davis and UC Hastings College of the Law, respectively. Leib is currently a visiting professor at Fordham Law School.