Coping through California’s Budget Crises in Light of Proposition 13 and California’s Fiscal Constitution

When Proposition 13 passed in 1978, many commentators predicted disaster for California’s state and local finances. Now, 30 years later, California is experiencing severe fiscal instability and a round of budget crises that has been worse than in the other states.

It would be wrong to blame Proposition 13 for all of California’s financial woes. Nevertheless, Proposition 13 is both an important component and a powerful symbol of California’s flawed fiscal constitution.

The phrase “fiscal constitution“ refers to the rules and processes whereby states and localities make decisions regarding taxes and spending. Hence, California’s fiscal constitution consists of its initiative process in addition to its legislative budgeting process.

Many commentators have critiqued California’s fiscal constitution from ideological perspectives. From the vantage point of someone who desires higher taxes and spending, the problem lies with the restrictions imposed on raising revenues- such as Proposition 13’s limits on property taxes. On the other hand, from the perspective of someone who thinks taxes and spending are too high, the problem may lie with automatic spending programs, overspending during economic upturns, or in a disconnect between legislators’ spending preferences and those of the voters.

This chapter attempts to navigate between these ideological perspectives to seek nonpartisan solutions to California’s repeated budget crises. Regardless of one’s preferences for the levels of taxes and spending, state and local finances need to be managed in the face of political disagreement and changing economic conditions. Although liberals might view California as having a revenue problem, and conservatives a spending problem, the disconnect between current revenues and current expenditures is a problem that all can agree on.

Despite the predictions of some overly enthusiastic commentators, the internet revolution of the 1990s did not eliminate the business cycle. As long as state economies cycle between booms and busts, states will face predictable uncertainty regarding future revenues. We can thus expect budget crises to be a regular feature of California’s fiscal landscape in the coming decades. These crises will likely be interspersed with periods of strong economic growth and revenue surpluses. But without dramatic changes to California’s fiscal constitution, these growth periods will be only temporary calms between fiscal storms.

This chapter will begin by discussing the relationship between state budget crises and the business cycle, and why California’s unique tax structure creates a worse fiscal rollercoaster than in the other states. However, the focus of this chapter is on the manner in which California’s fiscal constitution exacerbates its budgetary roller coaster. The chapter will present and analyze a number of alternatives for reforming California’s fiscal constitution so as to ameliorate the dynamics currently leading to repeated harmful budget crises.

The Role of the Business Cycle

Perhaps the most important cause of state budget crises is the ordinary working of the business cycle. Unfortunately, the economic causes of the business cycle are not fully understood. Many of the most prominent theories involve elements of psychology in addition to or in place of neo-classical economic reasoning. It seems likely that economic actors become overly optimistic about future prospects during upturns, leading to excess investment and inventory buildup, which ultimately creates the need for readjustments and cutbacks during economic downturns.

Whatever the underlying causes of business cycles, there is general recognition that business cycles exist and that they are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future. From the perspective of state fiscal management-rather than macro-economic management-the most important features of the business cycle are its implications for taxes and spending programs. During economic downturns, tax revenues plummet just as the demand for many spending programs increase.

The reverse happens during upturns: revenues accumulate while the demand for spending programs decreases.

The shift from an upturn to a downturn can be abrupt, with profound consequences for state budgeting. For instance, California’s general fund revenues grew 20% in 2000-the final year of the internet boom-only to fall by 17% in 2002.[2] Liberals and conservatives can argue about whether spending was too high in 2000, or too low in 2002, but it cannot be disputed that the budgets passed assuming a continuation of the economic conditions of the late 1990s proved a poor match for the conditions of the current decade.

With perfect hindsight, it is easy to blame poor budgeting on shortsighted or irresponsible behavior by legislators or by forecasting staffs.[3] But passing blame in this fashion ignores the realities of the forecasting process.[4] Although many experts predicted the end of the tech boom, forecasters had no way of knowing exactly how long the boom would last. Indeed, there was no shortage of commentators proclaiming an end to the business cycle and arguing that the strong growth of the late 1990s would continue for decades.

Even were forecasters able to ignore the most optimistic projections, it is not sufficient to know that a boom will eventually end (or that a bubble will eventually burst). Forecasters need to make predictions on a year-by-year basis. Forecasters sometimes stress the uncertainty of their projections. But disclaimers and other means for conveying uncertainty are notoriously easy to ignore in favor of the hard numbers of the actual projections. Ultimately, state budget processes require hard numbers, and even uncertain numbers have a great deal of influence.

Unless economists or other scholars create new technologies for predicting the future course of state economies and budgets that are vastly superior to the methods we have today, states will continue to experience dramatic revenue swings as their economies cycle between booms and busts. The necessary and painful adjustments that states will need to make at the beginning of each downturn are the primary cause of budget crises.

The Role of California’s Tax Base
California relies on income taxation for a greater proportion of its overall revenues than does almost any other state while relying on property taxation much less than do the other states. Proposition 13 is perhaps the most important cause of California’s unique tax structure.[5] Property tax collections in California fell by over 50% following the enactment of Proposition 13 in 1978. Subsequently, the growth of property tax revenues in the 30 years following Proposition 13 has been much slower in California than in the other states while the growth of income tax collections has been considerably faster.[6]

California’s tax mix results in significantly greater fiscal volatility, because income tax revenues are amongst the most volatile of the major state funding sources while property tax revenues are among the least volatile. This greater volatility of California’s revenue structure has led to California enjoying a larger degree of enhanced fiscal capacity during economic upturns, but has also led to dramatically more severe budget crises during economic downturns.

The defenders of Proposition 13 sometimes draw attention to the fact that Proposition 13 has decreased the volatility of California’s property tax revenues. Since Proposition 13 limits the growth of appraised values for the purposes of property tax assessment even when market values are growing rapidly, most homeowners find that over time their appraised values are much lower than the market values of their homes. If market property values later fall-as is currently happening in California-homeowners will not see a reduction in their tax bills unless the market values fall to below the appraised values for property tax assessment. Hence, property tax revenues may continue growing even during periods of housing price decline.

Yet despite Proposition 13’s reduction in volatility of California’s property tax revenues, this effect is dwarfed by the greater volatility that has resulted from shifting California’s tax base away from property taxation and toward income taxation. Even in states without property tax limitations, property taxes remain one of the least volatile sources of state revenue.[7] Moreover, whereas the other major sources of state revenues tend to rise and fall simultaneously, property tax revenues tend to follow their own course. Property tax revenues sometimes rise and fall with the overall state economy-as is currently taking place. But it is not uncommon for property tax revenues to continue rising while the state economy and its other revenue sources are entering a downturn-as occurred in 2001. Due to both the greater stability of property taxes and to their countercyclical tendencies, were California able to increase its use of property taxation, the volatility of the state’s revenue structure would be greatly reduced and budgetary crises would become both less common and less severe.

Another factor leading to greater fiscal volatility in California and thus to more severe budget crises during downturns is California’s relatively high reliance on capital gains taxation. California is one of only seven states that taxes capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income, and California derives a much higher percentage of its overall revenues from capital gains taxation than do most of the other states.[8] Over the last 30 years, capital gains have been five times more volatile than wages and salaries or than consumption. Hence, revenues from capital gains taxation are considerably more volatile than revenues from the taxation of ordinary income or sales taxes.

Some commentators have suggested that California should move away from taxing capital gains and shift toward a less volatile tax base. Yet the most volatile sources of state revenue are also the most progressive sources of state revenue. Hence, switching toward a more stable tax base requires moving toward a regressive tax base-by moving away from taxing capital and/or taxing ordinary income at high marginal rates. Property taxes are unique among the major sources of state revenue in that they are relatively nonvolatile, while taxing capital (at least to some extent) and being capable (at least arguably) of progressivity in their incidence.[9]

If California voters wish to retain the level of progressivity currently embedded in California’s tax structure, and do not wish to overturn Proposition 13 and enact significantly higher property taxes, California’s revenue structure will continue to exhibit high levels of fiscal volatility. Without major reforms to either California’s tax base structure or to the state’s fiscal constitution, we should expect repeated budget crises over the coming decades. If current trends continue, these budget crises are likely to become increasingly severe. Californians may end up looking back on their current budget troubles with nostalgia.

The Role of California’s Fiscal Constitution

Due to the workings of the business cycle and to long-term trends in the economics of health care and education spending, budget crises will continue to be a recurring part of California’s fiscal landscape.[10] Due to California’s choice of a highly volatile (and more progressive) tax base, these crises will almost undoubtedly be more severe in California than in the other states. In light of these challenges, it is of crucial importance for California’s political establishment to be able to confront the hard choices presented by budget crises head on. Unfortunately, the structure of California’s fiscal constitution stands in the way of proactive solutions to California’s budgetary dilemmas.

As in all states, California’s political establishment is composed of diverse interest groups who have different preferences for tax and spending policy. Some of these groups would like to see taxes lowered, while other groups would like to see additional revenues raised to fund their desired spending programs. During times of significant budgetary shortfalls, the conflicts between these groups can become particularly salient.

Were the state legislature the sole arbiter of budget policy, and were the legislature not bound by supermajority requirements, responses to budget shortfalls would primarily depend on which mix of interest groups controlled a majority of votes in the legislature. If pro-spending groups controlled a majority, we would expect to see tax hikes. Similarly, we would expect spending cuts if anti-tax interest groups controlled a majority. Or if neither side controlled a sufficiently strong majority, we might expect a compromise policy containing both tax hikes and spending cuts.

Yet California’s fiscal constitution differs from this picture in a number of important respects. Not only does it take more than a simple majority of the state legislature to enact budgetary reforms, but the state legislature is far from the only arena in which budgetary policy can be enacted. These factors combine to create an environment in which interest groups often find it far easier to advance their policy preferences through the initiative process than through the legislative process.

Looking first to the legislative process, California’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to pass a budget or to raise taxes.[11] These supermajority requirements enable a determined minority of the legislature to block any budgetary reform the minority disagrees with. When combined with the governor’s veto and other legislative roadblocks, the two-thirds supermajority requirement makes it unlikely that any political party or coalition of interest groups will have a sufficient majority to enact their desired budgetary reforms in the face of determined opposition.

Exacerbating this problem is California’s system of term limits that gives state legislators little incentive to compromise in the short term in order to build longer-term working relationships. There is little that a majority coalition can offer the minority in order to gain the minority’s acquiescence in passing a legislative response to a budget crisis.

Were the legislative process the only arena in which interest groups could hope to have their policy goals enacted, these obstacles to majority decision-making might successfully force compromise. With no other option available, the diverse interest groups might be forced to come together to agree on solutions to budget shortfalls. But the legislative process is hardly the only game in town.

California’s initiative process gives interest groups a ready alternative to the legislature for achieving their budgetary policy goals. California’s voters can constrain and override decisions of the legislature through use of ballot initiatives. Proposition 13 is the most notable example of voters using initiatives to shape California’s fiscal constitution, but it is not the only example.

Consider this partial list of the initiatives affecting California’s budget that were passed following the adoption of Proposition 13 in 1978:

– In 1979, Proposition 4 created state spending limits, such that annual appropriations are limited based on prior year appropriations and revenues in excess of these limits must be returned.
– In 1982, Propositions 5 and 6 abolished the state’s inheritance and gift taxes. Also, Proposition 7 required a partial indexing of the state’s income tax.
– In 1986, Proposition 47 required that revenue from motor vehicle license fees be allocated to cities and counties. Also, Proposition 62 required that new local taxes be approved by a two-thirds vote of the governing body and a majority of local voters.
– In 1988, Proposition 98 mandated that 40% of the state’s general account budget be dedicated to K-12 education and to community college funding. Also, Proposition 99 added a 25-cent sales tax per pack of cigarettes with the proceeds dedicated to health, education, and recreation.
– In 1990, Proposition 111 relaxed some of the previously adopted appropriation limits.
– In 1993, Proposition 172 raised the state’s general sales tax by 0.5% with the revenues dedicated to public safety programs.
– In 1996, Proposition 218 strengthened the voter approval requirements for new local taxes, mandating that two-thirds of voters approve new local non-general taxes.
– In 1998, Proposition 10 increased the tax on cigarettes by 25 cents per pack with the revenues dedicated to childhood development programs.
– In 2002, Proposition 42 required that motor vehicle fuel sales and use tax revenues be dedicated to transportation purposes. Also, Proposition 49 mandated an increase in state funding for after school programs.
– In 2004, Proposition 1A adopted several measures to protect local funding sources. Also, Proposition 58 established a budget reserve fund and placed restrictions on the use of deficit bonds and Proposition 63 levied an additional 1% income tax on taxpayers with incomes in excess of $1 million with the revenues dedicated to mental health services. As this partial list should make clear, voter initiatives play a very important

As this partial list should make clear, voter initiatives play a very important role in shaping California’s budget policy. Even the voter recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 can be viewed as part of California’s fiscal constitution, as the success of the recall has been viewed as coming at least partially in response to Governor Davis’s tripling of California’s vehicle license fees.

Admittedly, the need to gather a large number of signatures in order to qualify an initiative for the ballot is a major hurdle in using the initiative process as an alternative to the legislative process. But once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, it only requires a simple majority of voters in order to become law, even when the initiative contains a constitutional amendment. Whereas legislative budgetary reforms require two-thirds votes in both chambers, a budgetary initiative needs only the support of half of the voters plus one. For an interest group coalition whose will is thwarted in the legislature, this dynamic can make the initiative process a very attractive alternative.

Moreover, it is often easier to pass budgetary initiatives than the fifty-percentplus-one math would suggest. Recent research in political psychology has confirmed that voters find it very difficult to understand budgetary tradeoffs. Voters are far more supportive of tax cuts, or of increased spending on popular programs, when these questions are asked in isolation. When voters are asked to evaluate a budgetary package including both tax cuts and reductions in specific spending programs (or increased funding for spending programs along with specified tax hikes) the voters are far less likely to approve of the measures. Psychologist Jonathan Baron and law professor Edward McCaffery have labeled this voter tendency the “isolation effect.“ Reviewing the experimental evidence, they conclude that political actors-such as the sponsors of ballot initiatives-can manipulate voter responses by controlling the framing of how budgetary decisions are described.

This political psychology research confirms what many political analysts have been claiming for decades. As many a liberal politician has been heard to joke: voters seem to think there is a budgetary line item called “waste and inefficiency“ that can be reduced to pay for tax cuts.

Due to the isolation effect, any tax cut or tax restriction measure that makes it to the ballot is likely to generate significant voter support. Similarly, any ballot measure that increases spending on popular programs is also likely to receive significant voter approval. The opponents of these measures will undoubtedly try to explain the tradeoffs and budgetary implications of reducing revenues or tying up funds, but these opponents will start with a major disadvantage as the sponsors of the ballot initiatives will initially control the framing of the initiatives. Without a massive media campaign to explain the stakes to the voting public, it will be all too easy for voters to approve both the tax cuts and the spending hikes, regardless of the consequences for the state’s budget.

California’s fiscal constitution is thus characterized by both a supermajority requirement and other restrictions that impede budgetary decision making at the legislative level, and a relatively accessible alternative in the initiative process. This combination gives interest groups little incentive to compromise or to work together on proactive solutions to California’s long-term budgetary problems.

What Can Be Done?

Of course, the best way to resolve a budget crisis is for the state legislature to come together to pass some combination of tax hikes and/or spending cuts. If exhortations could suffice, this chapter would end with a call for legislators to rise above their parochial interests in order to reach a long-term budgetary compromise.

Yet the United States’ political system was built on a Madisonian understanding that political actors will pursue their own narrow interests and must thus be constrained by institutional structures. This chapter has argued that the failure of California’s politicians to responsibly deal with the state’s budgetary problems is at least partially the fault of the state’s flawed fiscal constitution. As such, it is worth considering potential reforms to California’s fiscal constitution. The remainder of this chapter will present and analyze a number of possible reforms.

Greater Use of Rainy Day Funds

Once California’s economy recovers, the state will likely enjoy a period of budgetary surpluses before the next downturn and resulting budget crisis. Were California able to save the surplus revenues generated during the upturn in a rainy day fund, this would go a long way toward minimizing the pain during subsequent downturns.

Rainy day funds (or budget stabilization funds) help to ward off budget crises in two ways. First, the revenues saved in a rainy day fund can be used to maintain spending during subsequent downturns without the need to raise taxes. Second, any revenues placed in a rainy day fund during an upturn are thus not available for increased spending or for tax cuts during the upturn. Hence, to the extent revenues are stored in a rainy day fund, they cannot be used to create unsustainable policy changes that will haunt the state in the next budget crisis.

California already has a rainy day fund. Indeed, revenues stored in the state’s rainy day fund exceeded 10% of general fund expenditures in both the 1999-2000 and 2005-2006 fiscal years-the final year of the 1990s tech boom and of the mid-decade partial recovery driven by the housing bubble.[12] Recognizing the advantages of rainy day funds, Governor Schwarzenegger has called for mandatory caps

on future spending increases with any excess revenues automatically diverted to the state’s rainy day fund.

California would undoubtedly benefit from greater use of rainy day funds. But other states’ experiences with proposals for mandatory contributions to rainy day funds do not provide much cause for optimism. Remember that state forecasters-both government employees and their private sector equivalents-tend to be overly optimistic in their future projections during economic upturns. When state coffers are overflowing, large surpluses stored in rainy day funds become a tempting target for any politician who seeks to implement a new spending program or to pass a tax cut. Political actors are generally rewarded for “bringing home the bacon“-passing tax cuts or spending hikes that their constituents desire. Fiscal prudence is seldom rewarded at the ballot box, as the beneficial consequences of this prudence are not felt until many years in the future. California’s system of term limits exacerbates this problem by causing legislators to focus even more on the short term.

Nevertheless, it is probably still worth experimenting with different methods for increasing the use of rainy day funds during boom years. Mandatory spending caps seem a poor way to achieve this end, however, as spending caps have generally proven easy to evade and do not apply to unsustainable tax cuts-including spending-like tax expenditures. Ultimately, increased funding for rainy day funds will only occur to the extent there is political support for protecting the rainy day fund revenues. Any mandates or prohibitions passed during bust years will be all too easy to overturn or circumvent if they are not backed up by a sufficient degree of political support.

Consequently, the best mechanism for increasing the use of rainy day funds may be to dedicate all revenues from capital gains taxation to the rainy day fund, making these revenues unavailable for general account spending. As capital gains taxes are by far the most volatile of state funding sources, this approach has the advantage of reinforcing a norm that capital gains revenues should not be used to fund long-term budgetary commitments. To divert capital gains revenues or other rainy day funds to support general account spending, the legislature might then be required to declare the existence of a budget crisis through a supermajority vote (ideally requiring a larger supermajority than needed to pass a budget, perhaps a three-fourths supermajority if the current supermajority requirements for passing a budget are maintained).

Whether capital gains revenues are dedicated to rainy day funds, or whether some other approach is devised to increase the use of rainy day funds, it will be necessary to create a robust political understanding that rainy day funds are only to be used when the state is experiencing a significant economic downturn. Without political support for such a norm, no mandatory rule is likely to be successful.

Amend the Supermajority Requirement for Passing Budgets

Numerous reform commissions have recommended abolishing California’s two-thirds supermajority requirement for passing state budgets. As the discussion here has undoubtedly made clear, this chapter supports these recommendations. However, when given the option of ending this requirement by passing Proposition 56 in 2004, voters defeated the proposition by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.[13] At least for now, it seems likely that the supermajority requirement is here to stay.

Perhaps more politically feasible would be to relax the supermajority requirement so as to allow the passage of an emergency budget during downturns with a simple majority vote. A constitutional amendment might be passed such that when the state controller declares a downturn or a budget crisis, and this declaration is ratified by a simple majority in both legislative chambers, the super-majority requirement would be temporarily waived.

Emergency budgets passed without a supermajority vote might be limited so that only temporary tax hikes and/or spending cuts are permitted. At the beginning of each year, both the controller and the legislature could be required to reauthorize the existence of a downturn or budget crisis, with all of the provisions in the emergency budget lasting only as long as this reauthorization continues.

To assuage potential concerns about one party controlling both the legislature and the controller’s office and using this control to reauthorize emergency budgets into perpetuity, the approval of these budgets could require an escalating super-majority vote.[14] Whereas a simple majority might suffice to keep the emergency budget in effect for the first couple years, the vote threshold for reauthorizing the budget could be gradually increased in subsequent years until it reached the two-thirds supermajority requirement for authorizing nonemergency budgets.

Determining the political feasibility of a proposal to exempt emergency budgets from the two-thirds supermajority requirement is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, the approach has the advantage of giving the legislature more flexibility in responding to budget crises while still requiring a substantial consensus to change the long-term path of California’s budget. By exempting emergency budgets from the supermajority requirement, California could hopefully avoid some of the dynamics that have led to long-delays in passing California’s budgets and to the repeated use of gimmicks when budgets are passed during down-turns.

Reform the Initiative Process

California’s ballot initiative process was designed so that voters would have a check on unresponsive legislatures. To some extent, this process may be achieving its goals in the fiscal realm. It is certainly plausible that Proposition 13 was passed due to legislative unresponsiveness to voter anger about property taxes. Similar stories could be told about most-if not all-of the other budget-affecting ballot initiatives adopted over the last 30 years.

However, when combined with the two-thirds supermajority rule for the legislature to raise taxes or to pass a budget, the initiative process has moved much of the locus of fiscal policymaking away from the legislature. The overall structure of California’s fiscal constitution has thus impeded voter accountability.

California’s legislature is currently dominated by Democrats who appear to desire higher taxes and spending. Were the legislative process allowed to proceed unchecked, we might expect this coalition to increase taxes and spending until voters protested by electing more fiscal conservatives. But under the current system, the minority coalition is generally able to block significant budgetary changes, resulting in gridlock and the lack of a clearly accountable party.

In light of these dynamics, a case might be made for disallowing voter initiatives with budgetary consequences. Considering the conclusions from recent political psychology research that voters find it particularly difficult to understand budgetary tradeoffs, fiscal policy is perhaps an area for which the legislature is better suited to making policy than are the voters.

Without going to the extreme of prohibiting all initiatives that affect the budget-which is unlikely to be politically feasible in any case-a very strong argument can be made for a rule requiring that future ballot initiatives that affect the budget be revenue neutral (or “self-funding“). In other words, any initiative that had the effect of lowering taxes would have to specify in detail which spending programs would be cut in order to offset the loss in revenues. And any ballot initiative that increased spending would need to specify precisely which taxes would be raised in order to pay for this spending.

To make this proposal effective, the controller’s office (or some other body) would probably need to fill in some of the details regarding the budgetary consequences of a ballot initiative after the initiative received the sufficient number of signatures but before the initiative appeared on the ballot. The sponsors of an initiative might thus write that a new spending program would be funded by an increase in the sales tax rate, with the controller’s office responsible for ruling on how large a sales tax increase would be required to fund the new program. The initiative would then go to the voters with the controller’s numbers on what would be required to make the initiative revenue neutral.

Although requiring revenue neutral ballot initiatives would not end all of the dynamics wherein interest groups have incentives to use the initiative process instead of reaching a compromise at the legislative level, the proposal would at least counteract the consequences wherein voter psychology and the isolation effect make it overly easy to pass budget-affecting ballot initiatives. A proposal for revenue-neutral ballot initiatives should thus ameliorate at least some of the dynamics resulting in legislative gridlock and irresponsible management of California’s budget crises.

Adopt Budgetary Auto-Adjusters

Another approach for reforming California’s fiscal constitution would employ the use of “budgetary auto-adjusters.“[15] In essence, budgetary auto-adjusters are proposals for changing the default policy outcomes that occur in the absence of legislative action. As this chapter is being written, California’s legislature has again missed its constitutional deadline for passing a budget. As Democrats and Republicans bicker about how to resolve the state’s massive budget shortfall, the state’s financial picture continues to deteriorate, generating uncertainty about the future of both tax and spending policies.

Imagine an alternative scenario wherein appointed budgetary officials adjusted tax rates and/or spending authorizations based on formulas previously adopted by the legislature. In the absence of affirmative legislative action, this default budget would be adopted and would remain in effect until amended by the legislature.

In order to be effective, the baseline (or default) budget would be set based on prespecified formulas for how tax and spending policies should be adjusted to reflect changing economic conditions. When the state economy entered a downturn, the appointed budgetary officials would be charged with raising the tax rates and/or reducing spending authorizations in the manner specified by prior legislation so that the baseline budget would remain balanced. Hence, the authorization formulas would need to be set so as to enact some combination of: tax rates being raised during downturns and lowered during upturns, and/or spending authorizations being reduced during downturns and increased during upturns.

In addition to its effects on the formal budget process, creating an official baseline budget would have further consequences because what constitutes a “tax cut,“ “tax hike,“ “cut in spending,“ “or spending increase“ entirely depends on what figures are used for the default levels of taxes and spending. These terms are crucial for the way in which the budget process is perceived. For instance, a majority of Republicans in the state legislature have pledged not to support any “tax hikes.“ But what do we mean by the term “tax hike“ in an environment where the ordinary workings of the business cycle are constantly changing the relationship between tax rates and revenues raised?

The current political understanding of the budgetary baseline in California appears to be based on a notion that tax rates are to be held constant (while revenues fluctuate with the business cycle) and that spending levels are gradually increased based on prior authorizations. Yet this notion of California’s budget baseline is essentially arbitrary. An equally plausible budgetary baseline might have tax revenues remaining constant in the absence of legislative action, with the tax rates adjusted annually in order to maintain consistency in the revenues as the economy cycles between busts and booms.

Presumably, the justification for both the two-thirds supermajority requirement for raising taxes and the Republicans’ anti-tax hike pledge is to facilitate restraining the size of government. Yet cyclically adjusted tax and spending levels are a much better measure for the size of government than are current-year tax and spending levels. Under the current system, fiscal conservatives have little power to prevent spending increases during economic boom years as the legislature enjoys extra revenues as long as tax rates are kept constant. Instead, fiscal conservatives primarily fight against tax rate increases during economic downturns, as this is the only time in which the conservative minority coalition has the power to restrain the size of government.

California’s existing understanding of its budgetary baseline thus has the effect of concentrating debates about the size of government into occurring primarily during bust years. Unsurprisingly, the legislature finds it very difficult to resolve these deep ideological debates under the short time requirements allowed to pass a budget following a downturn in revenues. Long periods of impasse followed by irresponsible budgets that rely on borrowing and gimmicks are the almost inevitable result.

Moving toward a system of budgetary auto-adjusters would thus have at least three advantages over California’s existing budgetary process. First, the legislature would find it easier to pass budgets during bust years (or to allow the default budget to go into effect) thus reducing the use of borrowing and gimmicks. By ending the dynamics that have led the state legislature to repeatedly miss its constitutional deadline for passing budgets, a system of budgetary auto-adjusters might help restore California’s credit-worthiness and the voters’ trust in state government.

Second, debates about the proper size of state government would no longer be forced into a compressed process with looming deadlines. Under a system of budgetary auto-adjusters, these debates could occur at any point during the economic cycle and would be determined more by changing voter preferences rather than by changing economic conditions. In place of the current system where governors and legislators who happen to take office during boom years are able to enact their preferences for new spending programs and tax cuts, while governors and legislators in office during bust years must take the blame for enacting painful coping measures, a system of budgetary auto-adjusters would help to equalize both opportunity and blame. In this manner, budgetary auto-adjusters would enhance the accountability of elected officials to voters.

Third, adopting a system of budgetary auto-adjusters should make it easier to predict the future course of both tax and spending policy. The current budget process creates built-in uncertainty as the legislature regularly increases spending while lowering taxes during boom years, only to reverse course to enact a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts during economic downturns. Increasing the predictability of tax and spending policy would improve the economy as businessmen and investors would find it easier to plan. Similarly, increasing the predictability of spending authorizations would help program managers better utilize their funds. Under the current system, there are far too many stories like buildings being constructed during upturns and only to be left vacant during downturns as budgets are cut.


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[1] David Gamage is an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

[2] Jon David Vasche and Brad Williams, “Revenue Volatility in California,“ State Tax Notes, Apr. 4, 2005, p. 35.

[3] There is some evidece that state forecasting is slightly biased in a politically motivated fashion, but this bias does not explain inaccurate forecasts of changing economic conditions. Richard T. Boylan, “Political Distortions in State Forecasts,“ Public Choice, Apr. 2008.

[4] See National Association of State Budget Officers, “Budgeting Amid Fiscal Uncertainty: Ensuring Budget Stability by Focusing on the Long Run,“ 2004 (hereinafter NASBO 2004).

[5] Proposition 13 had three major components: first, it limited ad valorem property taxes to a maximum rate of 1% (with a few exceptions); second, it limited the rate at which the assessed value of property can increase for property tax purposes to 2%, even during periods when the real value of a property is increasing far more rapidly; and third, it imposed a two-thirds super-majority requirement on any legislatively enacted change to state taxes for the purposes of raising revenue.

[6] Public Policy Institute of California, “Fiscal Realities: Budget Tradeoffs in California Government,“ 2007, p. 26.

[7] J. Fried Giertz, “The Property Tax Bound,“ National Tax Journal, Sept. 2006; Russell S. Sobel and Gary A. Wagner, “Cyclical Variability In State Government Revenue: Can Tax Reform Reduce It?“ State Tax Notes, Aug. 25, 2003.

[8] The other states are Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina. David L. Sjoquist and Sally Wallace, “Capital Gains: Its Recent, Varied, and Growing (?) Impact on State Revenues,“ State Tax Notes, Aug. 18, 2003, p. 498.

[9] The extent to which property taxes burden capital as opposed to other sources is controversial, as is the degree to which property taxes can be made progressive. See George R. Zodrow, “The Property Tax Incidence Debate and the Mix of State and Local Finance of Local Public Expenditures,“ CESifo Economic Studies, Jan. 2008. Note, however, that property taxes can be made more progressive through the use of circuit breakers and related devices. See Karen Lyons, Sarah Farkas, and Nicholas Johnson, “The Property Tax Circuit Breaker: An Introduction and Survey of Current Programs,“ Report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 21, 2007.

[10] Education and healthcare spending in the United States has been growing faster than gross domestic product. In particular, healthcare spending jumped to 15% of GDP in 2007, from under 5% of GDP in 1960. If current trends continue, the Congressional Budget Office projects that healthcare spending will grow to over 45% of GDP by 2080. This massive growth of healthcare expenditures threatens to overwhelm the funding power of both the states and the national government, causing programs like Medicaid take over a continually increasing percentage of state budgets. Congressional Budget Office, “The Long Term Budget Outlook,“ Dec. 2007, pp. 22-24.

[11] The two-thirds super-majority requirement for raising taxes was placed in the state Constitution by Proposition 13 in 1978. The two-thirds super-majority requirement for passing budgets dates back to the Riley-Stewart Amendment enacted in 1933.

[12] California Department of Finance, “Historical Data Budget Expenditures,“ Jan. 2006, available at

[13] Proposition 56 – known as the Budget Accountability Act – would have reduced the super-majority requirement for passing the budget from requiring a 2/3rds majority to requiring a 55% majority. The Proposition would also have made the Governor and Legislators lose salary for every day the budget was delivered late. The measure failed to pass with 2,185,868 (34.3%) votes in favor and 4,183,188 (65.7%) against.

[14] The concept of an escalating super-majority vote is drawn from a proposal by Bruce Ackerman for how the United States Congress should deal with authorizing emergency powers. Bruce Ackerman, “Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism,“ 2006.

[15] The term “budgetary auto-adjusters“ refers to a set of proposals for coping with state budget crises that the author of this chapter is developing in ongoing research.

Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley (Boalt Hall School of Law), USA