Budgets by the People, for the People

NEARLY a month after the June 30 deadline, California’s Legislature and governor have finally agreed on a budget for the new fiscal year. The embarrassing debacle of paying the state’s bills with i.o.u.’s will come to an end — at least for a while. Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had pledged not to “kick the can down the road,” the budget he intends to sign today relies on $8 billion in accounting and revenue gimmickry, virtually guaranteeing another fiscal crisis next year.

For states as well as families, hard economic times require difficult choices. But some states find themselves in budget battles even when they don’t have the bad economy to use as an excuse. California is the prime recidivist, but since 2002, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin have also failed to close the deal on a budget on time. Government shutdowns resulted on five occasions.

Budget breakdowns most often occur under conditions of divided government — when Democratic and Republican lawmakers must compromise with one another to get a budget passed. Yet many voters like divided government, and for good reason. Distrusting of the extremes in both parties, these voters want their states to follow middle-of-the-road fiscal policies.

California’s Constitution has long required the Legislature to adopt a budget with a two-thirds vote; eight other states now necessitate supermajorities for some budget items. Such rules effectively force the majority party to negotiate with the minority on the budget since it is rare for one party to win two-thirds of the seats in a state legislature.

In California and elsewhere, politicians and analysts have called for constitutional conventions to revise the basic charter of state government. Believing that fed-up voters will reject any reforms on which political insiders have left their prints, some have suggested that delegates to the convention consist of ordinary citizens selected at random in a process akin to being called for jury duty.

But jurors are given a pretty limited task. They decide one case at a time and their basic choice is binary: guilty or not guilty, victory for the plaintiff or for the defendant. It is probably wishful thinking to expect random citizens to redesign state government from top to bottom.

We suggest a more modest role for an assembly of ordinary citizens: breaking budget stalemates. Here’s how it would work. If the Legislature and the governor fail to adopt a budget four weeks before the deadline for the new fiscal year, a group of randomly selected citizens — one from each legislative district — would be convened to resolve the stalemate. Three competing budgets would be drawn up: one by the governor, one by the Democratic caucuses in the legislative branch and one by the Republican caucuses. (These proposed budgets would have to be finalized before the citizens were selected.)

For two weeks, the citizens’ assembly would hear from and question government leaders, policy experts, interest groups and other supporters and critics of the proposed budgets. The citizens would then deliberate among themselves and vote by secret ballot on which of the budgets to adopt. The vote would take place on the budgets as originally submitted; neither the citizens nor lawmakers would be able to make amendments. The winning budget would become law.

This arrangement would have a number of virtues. First, it would ensure that states adopt budgets in a timely fashion, protecting bond ratings and freeing lawmakers to attend to other important business.

Second, it would give the three institutional actors in the budgetary process — the governor and the Democratic and Republican caucuses — strong incentives to devise budgets that appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, not political ideologues or special-interest favor seekers. Citizens who participate in the two-week assembly would also learn an awful lot about their state’s fiscal situation and competing legislative priorities. These citizen participants would not be as susceptible to sound-bite misinformation as in more traditional exercises of direct democracy.

Our scheme would also do wonders for accountability. When budgets are adopted under divided government (or supermajority requirements), it is hard for voters to figure out exactly who is responsible for the shape of the compromises. If the upside of divided government is centrist compromise, the downside is weakened retrospective accountability at the polls. Our approach to budgeting promotes accountability because the enacted budget would unequivocally belong to “the governor,” “the Republicans” or “the Democrats.” Dissatisfied voters would know exactly whom to reward or fault when they go to the polls at the next election.

Finally, our proposal honors Americans’ insistence on a strong popular voice in government, without demanding too much of citizen participants. It would require them to perform only a fairly simple task: rank your preferences among three proposed budgets, after hearing out the proponents and opponents of each.

Elsewhere, citizens have already proven themselves able to make measured, well-reasoned decisions about budgetary issues in small-group deliberative settings. The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre has been doing participatory budgeting since 1989, which has helped to equalize severe disparities in the standards of living among its residents. In Zeguo Township, China, citizens have been convened through statistically random sampling to establish spending priorities for road, building and construction projects.

Here at home, our participatory budgeting procedure would not be a panacea. But it should result in timely budgets, tailored to the concerns of average voters, for which elected officials can be held to account. That’s definitely better than the mess we have now.

Chris Elmendorf is a professor of law at the University of California, Davis. Ethan J. Leib is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.