Survivor Budgeting: Restoring Responsibility and Compromise to the California Budget Process

In 2008 the California State Legislature was unable to agree on a budget until 85 days after the start of the new fiscal year. A delay of this magnitude is unacceptable and irresponsible. Furthermore, the resulting budget failed to address California's problems in a responsible way. This page contains a proposal for how to eliminate this behavior in the future. It's called "Survivor Budgeting" and it will work by taking away the votes of problem legislators.

The underlying problem is that our partisan political system creates deep conflicts between Democrats and Republicans and there is no incentive for either side to compromise. Survivor Budgeting will create incentives for our legislators to work together and find a responsible middle ground, and to get it all done on time.

Here's how Survivor Budgeting would work. If the annual budget has been approved by the legislature and signed by the governor before the new fiscal year begins on July 1 then Survivor Budgeting has no impact: everything works just as it does now. If, however, the budget has not been signed then on July 1 then 11 of California's 120 Senators and Assemblyman will be "voted out of the capital": they will have no role in the remaining budget process, and no vote.

The evictees will be chosen in three groups. First, all of the Democratic legislators from both houses will choose 4 Republicans from either house, using any decision process they choose. Similarly, the Republican legislators from both houses will choose 4 Democrats to evict. Finally, the Governor will choose 3 legislators from either party and either house.

Once 11 legislators have been evicted, the surviving legislators have 2 more weeks to approve a budget and get it signed by the governor. The 2/3 majority required for budget approval will then consist of 2/3 of the survivors. If a budget is not signed within 2 weeks another round of 11 evictions will occur, and the process will repeat every 2 weeks until a budget is approved and signed. If the budget process were to stretch out like it did this year, about half of the legislators would lose their votes.

There are two reasons why Survivor Budgeting would produce better budgets faster. First, when evictions occur each party is likely to remove the most extreme and intransigent members of the other party, leaving a more centrist group of survivors, which is more likely to reach compromise. Second, the fear of eviction will motivate all legislators to get the job done on time. If a legislator is evicted, then not only does he or she lose their ability to sway the budget process, but they are also likely to lose any earmarks and special considerations for their district. Since no-one knows ahead of time who will be evicted, everyone will be motivated to finish the budget before evictions occur.

Allowing the governor to choose 3 of the evictees in each round gives the governor clout that accumulates with each additional round of evictions. This is appropriate, since the governor was elected to represent all of the people of California: if the legislature can't get past its partisan politics and finish the job, then it gradually loses power to the governor.

The reason for budget delays today is that there is no incentive for legislators to make difficult compromises that will finish the budget quickly. On the contrary, each party hopes that by delaying the process and holding the state hostage it can force the other party to give in to its demands. We need to find a way to reverse the incentives and punish legislators who delay. The most effective way to punish them is to take away their votes, and Survivor Budgeting does exactly that.

Let's pass a Constitutional Amendment to implement Survivor Budgeting and restore responsible budgeting behavior by our State Legislature.