There are times when half a loaf is definitely worse than none – especially when accepting half a loaf sets a very bad precedent.
Just such a case is the upcoming November ballot proposition to lower the size of the majority vote needed to pass local school construction bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent.
Why is 55 percent now being proposed? Because Proposition 26, the March primary election proposition to lower the standard from two-thirds to a simple majority, failed – but lost by only a 51.5-48.5 percent margin. The reasoning of backers like Gov. Gray Davis and the business leaders who pushed unsuccessfully for the change to simple majorities is no mystery: If a simple majority standard could get close to winning, they figure, lower the amount of change sought just a bit and a new proposition might very well pass.
In short, they’re saying that half a loaf is better than none. In some ways that’s probably correct. Since 1997, fully 91 percent of all local school bond proposals have drawn more than majority support, but only 64 percent actually passed by winning the required two-thirds vote. Lower the bar to 55 percent and more than half the measures that failed would have passed.
So a 55 percent majority would help some kids. It would accomplish much of what Proposition 26 sought to do: Build many new schools, add classrooms to others, modernize still more schools by wiring them for the Internet, repair leaky roofs, peeling paint and cracked asphalt.
A 55 percent majority even draws the ire of most of the same people who fought so hard against Proposition 26. “It is astonishing,” say Jon Coupal and Joel Fox, president and president emeritus of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., in a tirade against the new plan, “that the governor would embrace a plan that, for all intents and purposes, is identical to the one the voters denied.”
Of course, they contradict themselves, too. “The 5 percent difference in passing rates between 50 percent and 55 percent will hardly be noticed...,” they say. They are right on this one point, and that explains why Davis supports the new 55 percent plan. It would let local districts fix most of the schools in the worst need.
Adds the Libertarian Party, another Proposition 26 foe, “To bring this back is nothing more than abuse of the initiative process.” Never mind that, like 26, the new proposition is not be an initiative, but will be placed on the ballot by Davis and the Legislature.
But all this discussion misses the key point. A 55 percent standard institutionalizes the idea of a supermajority just as surely as a two-thirds requirement ever did. And the entire concept is fundamentally un-American.
So in this case half a loaf – setting a standard easily met by most school bond proposals – is worse than no change at all.
For if this idea becomes law, it will be decades before anyone even tries to get rid of the other two-thirds-vote bugaboos that continually haunt California government.
For local school bonds, the two-thirds requirement goes back to the 1879 writing of the state Constitution. So does the two-thirds vote needed in the state Legislature for passage of the state budget. But the two-thirds vote required for passage of local general tax increases was set by the landmark 1978 Proposition 13. It was sort of an afterthought by Jarvis and Paul Gann, the proposition’s sponsors, who were far more interested in lowering property taxes.
The idea of a two-thirds standard always aims to give minorities control over decisions. In the Legislature, it gives the minority party veto power over the yearly budget, allowing them more influence than their numbers often justify.
When it comes to school bonds, the two-thirds standard allows a minority to veto the wishes of the majority – even a large majority. The fear behind this is that persons with no real estate will impose higher property taxes on homeowners. In reality, the two-thirds majority protects business and commercial property as much as it does homeowners. It keeps taxes on business property at rock-bottom levels even in times of extreme prosperity and record profits.
Should these things exist in a society which decides almost everything else – including statewide votes on whether there should be majority rule on school bonds – by simple majorities of 50 percent-plus-one? In the federal Constitution, the only supermajorities ever required are for things like overriding vetoes and impeachments. These are much more serious business than passing school bonds.
By a narrow margin, California voters opted last spring to restrain their own spending when it comes to local schools. But the vote was much closer than in 1993, the last time a similar attempt was made. Almost every political analyst opined afterward that the voters who came out in March were lopsidedly conservative-leaning, drawn by the Proposition 22 “defense of marriage” measure and by the fact there was a presidential contest on the Republican side while the Democratic outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Knowing this, why should backers of a lower standard for school bond votes accept half a loaf, when they came so close to winning a full one last time out? The answer is they should not.
The 55 percent proposal is a mistake, not only because it undershoots what can likely be won this fall, but also because it tacitly endorses the idea of supermajorities, and supermajorities are just plain wrong.
Thomas Elias’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org