Two-Thirds Rule Makes Transit Funding Proposals Worse, Not Better

Posted on 11 December 2012

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By Robert Cruickshank

Last week I made the case for restoring democracy to transit funding decisions in California. A Democratic State Senator is proposing exactly that, offering a constitutional amendment that would reduce the requirement for passing a transit tax from 66.7% to 55%. But apparently some folks still seem to believe that a two-thirds requirement is somehow good for transit funding initiatives.

That's the argument made by Drunk Engineer over at Systemic Failure:

The advantage of the 66% threshold is that it ensures all constituencies have a seat at the table. That was not the case in 1986, when only a simple majority was needed. The result was that bike/ped advocates were completely shut out. Transit riders didn't do so well either. Here is a comparison of the simple-majority 1986 and super-majority 2002 measures:

The problem with this argument is that it tries to make a sweeping argument based on a single example - and even then it ignores historical change.

Bike and ped advocates were shut out of the 1986 measure not because a simple majority was needed, but because at the time those kinds of projects were simply not seen as important to local politicians or voters. Alameda County in 1986 was still locked in a mentality of urban sprawl, with heavy growth happening in the Dublin-Pleasanton area as well as in Fremont, and local political leaders reflected those values. Bike and ped advocacy was not nearly as strong in 1986 as it was by the early 21st century. Adding those kinds of projects in the mid-1980s would not have done much to make the proposal more viable, and could have actually made it less popular among an electorate that had not yet made the switch toward supporting non-sprawl forms of travel.

Further, 1986 was only a few years removed from the successful passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13, a proposition that passed in Alameda County. Measure B that year won 57% support, well short of a two-thirds majority. It's hard to believe that adding bike and ped projects would have put it above 66.7%.

What actually happens with transit taxes and the two-thirds requirement, which was applied to local funding measures in 1995 and 1996 after a California Supreme Court decision and the passage of Proposition 218, is that in order to pass they more often get loaded down with freeway projects. That was the story behind the passage of LA County's Measure R in 2008, which only made the ballot because local governments won some much-desired yet utterly pointless freeway widening projects. The same held true in Orange County, where Measure M was renewed in 2006 with funding for a local light rail project stripped and the overwhelming majority of funds put toward more freeway widening in order to ensure that it reached the required two-thirds majority.

Because it's not 1986 any more, and because the Bay Area counties and Los Angeles County now have a lot more voters who like bike, ped, and transit projects, the only reason local transportation funding packages have any freeway funding in them at all is to clear the two-thirds hurdle. Without it, there's no incentive at all to include that stuff. Alameda and Los Angeles Counties could easily pass transit funding packages that are solely focused on transit, bike and ped projects if they just needed 55%.

Drunk Engineer's argument is flawed, but also common. Polls show that most voters believe that two-thirds supermajority requirements force elected officials and/or voters to "work together" to come up with a consensus package that everyone likes. That appeals to many voters, who believe that the job of politicians is to "work together" instead of "get the policy right" or "fix long-term problems." But in reality that isn't what happens at all. The compromises required to reach two-thirds are usually unworkable or bad policy. And even then, a small anti-tax minority is empowered to block even a good proposal, which is why the two-thirds rule exists in the first place.

If good transportation policy is the goal, then let's give power to the organizers on the ground doing the work to build public support for bike, ped, and transit funding. Take away the power of freeway builders and anti-tax zealots to dictate transportation policy by lowering the requirement to 55%, or better yet to 50% +1, and let California's emerging sustainable transit majority be heard.

Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.

The 2/3 rule is a good way for the minority not to be steam rolled over with excessive taxes.In general, I agree that, in a democracy, majority is fine; but not for taxes.