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Jim Boren: Dropping two-thirds rule

The two-thirds requirement to pass a state budget is an unreasonable standard that gets in the way of California operating efficiently.

But one thing is nagging at those of us who would like to see it changed: You can't trust this batch of majority Democrats not to give away the state treasury to the public employee unions.

If California voters are ever going to change the two-thirds requirement, legislative Democrats must show they can be trusted to spend taxpayer funds responsibly, and not backfill their overspending with tax increases.

Democratic leaders will never admit it, but they have empowered Republicans to cling to their "no" votes on the state budget, and that has pushed the state into financial chaos.

But the Republicans in the Legislature can be irresponsible because the Democrats have a credibility problem.

Both parties must move to the center of the political spectrum, yet the Democratic and Republican leadership refuse to acknowledge that they are out of step with mainstream Californians.

That's why the proposed "open primary" is a good idea.

It would lead to a more moderate Legislature that isn't held hostage to the special interests that now run both major parties in the Assembly and Senate.

It is one of many reforms needed to return sanity to the legislative process in Sacramento.

We also need to change the two-thirds rule.

The best solution is reducing the requirement to pass the budget to 55 percent in both legislative houses.

That would still be a super-majority to limit excesses by the majority party, but not so high as to make an on-time budget unattainable.

Unfortunately, there's no indication that either party is willing to reform itself, and that won't play well with voters.

The two-thirds requirement is in the state constitution, so voters will have to pass a constitutional amendment to reduce it to 55 percent or a simple majority.

Now that the budget mess is settled, the Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, have the opportunity to show they are interested in governing.

But Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg must be able to tell the special interests who fund Democratic campaigns to back away.

That won't be easy.

The Republicans in the Legislature are in such disarray that they are only a factor when it's time to block the budget.

So it falls to the Democrats to fix the system.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, made an interesting comment a few weeks ago during a panel discussion on the budget process, and I asked him to expand on it for this column.

It's the kind of candid assessment of Sacramento politics that too few lawmakers are willing to make.

"We've allowed the outside interests to control the process," he said. "We aren't negotiating between the Democrats and Republicans. We are negotiating between Republicans who have to check with the tax-pledge groups and the Democrats who have to check with the unions and the environmentalists. We need to ignore some of the folks who take the budget hostage, and allow the elected representatives to negotiate a budget that's in the best interest of the state."

Wouldn't it be nice if the Democrats actually worried more about funding programs such as foster care and mental health initiatives than they do about giving perks to the prison guards union?

Wouldn't it be nice if the Republicans actually worried more about average Californians than they do about appeasing anti-tax groups who would be just as happy to see government collapse?

So here's what I'd like to see out of legislative Democrats (the Republicans have marginalized themselves to the point they can be ignored except at budget time):

Bass and Steinberg hold a joint news conference to assure Californians that they understand that they have a credibility problem when it comes to spending money.

Commit to not spending more money than they take in, and only spend the money on programs that get results.

Come back in three months and give us an update on how they are doing, and do that every three months.

That doesn't mean ignoring party principles. It means being wise stewards of the treasury.

If that happens, then get rid of the two-thirds requirement for the budget.

Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. You can reach him at jboren@fresnobee.com.