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George Lakoff's 14 Words That Could Fix California

The minority rules in the California Legislature, and they're responsible for the state's budget logjam -- linguist George Lakoff has an elegant solution to fix it.
 
 
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Here's the little-known truth about California: Since 1978, the state has been subject to what is essentially minority rule. Proposition 13 -- mostly packaged as a property tax law change -- was passed that year, altering the state constitution to read that a two-thirds super-majority is needed in the state legislature to pass any revenue increases. But what this has turned out to really mean is that one-third plus one vote, or 34 percent, of the state legislature can control all legislative decisions.

You thought filibustering on Capitol Hill was bad? This is worse. And California is the only state with such a rule in place, now or ever.

As the state faces a growing budget deficit -- now estimated to be $20 billion -- the tyranny of the minority has grown more apparent to voters who have hardly noticed the two-thirds requirement all these years, but who now see public programs and schools being shut down or underfunded left and right in order to close the widening budgetary gap.

"This is an issue about democracy and most people don't know it," says renowned Berkeley linguist and Democratic consultant George Lakoff. "That is the reason we have a budget crisis, which in the end is really a crisis of democracy."

Lakoff and a few other groups have their eyes set on reforming the two-thirds budget trainwreck via the November midterm elections. Let the majority of voters decide whether a minority should rule Sacramento.

The state of the Golden State

Californians are proud of the fact that the state's economy, when compared to entire nations' GDPs, is the eighth largest in the world, eclipsing rising global powers like Brazil, Russia and India. Though when you're up that high, you have a long way to fall, as evidenced by the world's largest economy -- the United States.

Solving the massive budget problem in Sacramento has seemed even more politically impossible than the situation in Washington. And many think the two-thirds requirement is to blame.

Currently about 63 percent of the state legislature, comprised of the State Senate and State Assembly, is Democratic. Ordinarily, this would allow Democrats to pass a state budget easily, but the two-thirds rule lets Republicans control the game, by holding the budget hostage until they get what they want.

Indeed, most GOP legislators in California have taken the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, championed by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform . Those who sign the pledge "solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases." Thirty-four percent of California's assembly members have signed on, as have 30 percent of state senators.

So while two-thirds of voters say they support paying higher taxes to fund K-12 education, and 50 percent support higher taxes to pay for higher education and health and human services, their elected representatives cannot act, due to the one-third minority who won't vote for any bill that involves raising revenue.

It's little wonder that a majority of Californians report feeling anxiety or disappointment when asked to describe the emotions elicited by their state legislature; or that a whopping 74 percent of them believe California is headed in the wrong direction.

The measures

The groups working to get their proposed initiatives on the November state ballot share at least one thing in common -- they know the state's budget problems will only get worse if the two-thirds budget vote threshold stays in place.

Perhaps the measure to receive the most press, if not money, is the California Democracy Act, composed of 14 simple words: "All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote."

Written by George Lakoff, who has long consulted for Democratic campaigns, it goes straight to the point, by simply substituting "two-thirds" for "majority," while the measure's title frames the issue around democracy. Lakoff, who as a linguist and political activist has for years urged Democrats to use their own language in politics rather than succumb to using Republican framing, took great care in writing his initiative.

"People vote according to the framing," Lakoff says, "and so I wanted the shortest, easiest way to understand the issue. And I wanted 'democracy' in the name."

Contrast Lakoff's measure with the one put forth by the On-Time Budget Act. Led by a coalition of nurse and firefighter groups, among others, it allows a simple majority to pass a budget, but does not change the two-thirds requirement for raising taxes, which is of course a huge part of the current problem. The "on-time" portion is a punitive clause that requires legislators to forfeit their pay in years when they have failed to pass a budget in a timely fashion. The delay in passing a budget has been covered heavily by media in California, upsetting many voters, but the soap opera-length delays were due to the logjam allowed by the two-thirds rule, not because the sensible majority wanted to delay a budget vote.

And then there's the Best Practices Budget Accountability Act, sponsored by the centrist group California Forward. Like the On-Time Act, this measure allows 50 percent to pass a budget, but retains the two-thirds rule for raising taxes. It also has a punitive clause, forcing state legislators to forfeit pay for every day the budget is late. And it places many constraints on spending, including the need for a two-year budget plus a five-year budget forecast, which would complicate flexibility such as emergency spending, or easy reallocation of funds as necessary.

The Best Practices measure is trying to make it on the ballot by working it through the Legislature, says Ryan Rauzon, a campaign consultant. The irony, though, is that legislators can only put it on the ballot with a two-thirds vote.

The On-Time Act is the only measure awash in money. Campaign manager Andrew Acosta says it has received over $1 million from labor groups and others, which makes it "the only initiative that's actually out there on the street in full-force."

It also has the unofficial support of the California Democratic Party, which has sent out a couple of e-mail blasts to its members on the Act's behalf. Acosta believes they are "well on [their] way" to achieving the nearly 700,000 signatures necessary to make it on the ballot by May 10.

Lakoff's measure does not have the party's support despite the fact that the 300 executive board members unanimously voted to endorse his measure. A California Democratic Party spokesman told AlterNet the party will only officially endorse a measure, if any, at its Los Angeles statewide convention in mid-April. The spokesman could not, however, immediately explain why the party was chaperoning e-mails for the On-Time Act over the California Democracy Act.

The political activist in Lakoff believes it's a matter of political calculations. The linguist in him thinks it's also about framing.

Taxes and the gubernatorial race

The California Democracy Act has an impressive roster of endorsers. The Board of Education, the State Treasurer, a plethora of academics, local city councils and Democratic clubs, individual union locals, Democratic legislators in Sacramento and Washington, and even San Francisco mayor and lieutenant-governor candidate Gavin Newsom are all on board.

But the organizations with the money -- namely labor unions and the state Democratic Party -- haven't offered support. As a result, Lakoff's unfunded efforts to meet the signature-gathering deadline by April 12 are characterized by a steep uphill climb.

A lot of this may have to do with the fact that polls seem to show Californians aren't interested in fully removing minority rule, as Lakoff's measure proposes to do. A November poll asked, "Do you think that you should need a fifty-percent majority to approve tax increases in the state legislature, or a two-thirds, sixty-six percent supermajority?"

Only 28 percent opted for the simple majority, while 66 percent chose the two-thirds rule.

This is surprising given the gridlock that the two-thirds requirement has caused. The lack of support for changing the status quo may be due in great part to people's lack of familiarity with the legislative process in Sacramento, but Lakoff believes the framing of the question makes the most difference.

"For the last 15 years, I've been pointing out that Democrats use Republican language all over the place including in polls," he said, referring to both private and public polls, many commissioned by Democrats. "They did polls on this issue where they spoke about raising taxes or not, but they didn't speak about democracy and talked about taxes, which is irrelevant for most because the tax raises would focus on plugging the tax loopholes for corporations and oil companies -- not on lower- and middle-class people."

That's why, Lakoff says, his measure speaks of revenue rather than taxes. And investigative polling commissioned by Lakoff and conducted by David Binder Research shows he may well be right.

When the 14 words in Lakoff's measure were presented to likely Californian voters, an astounding 73 percent supported it. When pollsters asked voters whether they supported the rewording of Lakoff's measure which was prepared by the Attorney General's office, and which refers to raising taxes, only 38 percent of likely voters supported it. That's a 69-percent difference.

"If you ask Republican questions, you get Republican answers. You're activating a Republican worldview in people's minds," Lakoff says. "Democrats take Republican language and assume it's neutral. They think telling people the truth will get people to make the right conclusion. They think framing is manipulating but in fact framing is the way people normally think. You can't think of thought without framing."

Unfortunately for Lakoff, even if his measure were to qualify, his text and title will only be seen in the literature that accompanies the ballot, which lists arguments for and against each initiative. The actual ballot will only include the Attorney General's title and summary.

It is not lost on Lakoff that the state's Attorney General just happens to be Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor. Brown was also governor when Proposition 13 passed in 1978.

"I don't know if Brown rewrote the initiative or if someone in his office did," Lakoff says. "But I'm sure he doesn't want taxes to be mentioned at all because Republicans will use that against him in the governor's race."

'This is politics'

Although George Lakoff has consulted on many political campaigns, this is the first time he has been so directly involved as the leader of a campaign. When asked if he saw irony in the fact that this campaign may ultimately fail due to bad framing, which he has fought against for so long, he admitted, "It might be a little uncanny."

"But this is politics and it's not the least bit surprising," Lakoff said. "If the Democratic Party and its coalition supporters think they are asking the right question" -- using taxes rather than revenue and democracy -- "and they think this would drag down their candidate, then it's perfectly rational for them to ignore us. I'm not angry, I'm sad."

Despite Lakoff's disappointment, he's gleaned a positive note from all of this: "The leadership is the problem because they get scared, and ask the wrong Republican questions and don't know how to market their ideas," he says. "But I've learned that it's not all Democrats who are screwing up. There are plenty of wonderful people out there in the grassroots and middle-range of the party who are doing just fine and who are open to learning new ideas. Maybe there's a new generation of party leaders, who in five or ten years will change everything."

In the meantime, California's Democratic leaders are gunning for their gubernatorial candidate. The two-thirds budget impasse may not only not be solved, it could potentially be worsened or further complicated by alternative fixes. What public programs will California cut next?