The 2/3 Rule Makes Transit Funding Proposals Worse, Not Better

Dec 9th, 2012 | Posted by

Last week this blog 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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 2/3 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.

  1. flowmotion
    Dec 9th, 2012 at 22:06

    TLDR; Robert Cruickshank caught his junk into his own spin-machine, and is now crying owwiee!

    The proposal was not returning majority vote for “transit” funding, but “transportation” funding. Transportation includes roads and freeways.

    I’m opposed to all this Prop 13 supermajority BS, but it’s not hard to imagine suburbs using their majority vote to give themselves freeway expansions while shafting transit systems.

    Derek Reply:

    TIL freeways, despite being involved with “the carrying of people, goods, or materials from one place to another,” are not transit.

    flowmotion Reply:

    Good for you! You must be one of the minority of Californians who could pass High School. I hope you enjoy the Interstate 710 transit project.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    My point is that you’re more likely to get transit-only packages with a majority or 55% threshold and more likely to get freeways mixed in with a 2/3 threshold.

  2. BMF of San Diego
    Dec 9th, 2012 at 22:38

    The change from 1986 to 2002 has more to do with evolution, I hope, than the neccissity of gathering 2/3rds support.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Absolutely. For an example, consider Seattle: “Roads and Transit” failed. “Proposition 1” (all transit) passed. In back-to-back elections.

    Now, does anyone seriously believe that this is what would have happened in the 1980s? I don’t. I believe that in the 1980s, “Roads and Transit” would have gotten more votes than “Just Transit”.

    I even have a Seattle example — not from the 1980s, but from 1968: Forward Thrust! The transit provisions required a supermajority; they got a majority but didn’t pass! The road provisions required a supermajority: they got the supermajority!

    Bluntly, in 1968 roads were more popular than public transportation; in 2012 the opposite is true.

  3. Stephen Smith
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 00:44

    I think it’s worth reprinting the Drunk Engineer’s reply to me when I asked him to elaborate:

    As you can see in the charts, transit operations doubled. Para-transit increased by almost 10x.

    There was also major changes the capital expenditures. I should have shown more clearly in the charts.

    The capital funds went to highway and BART extension projects. The 1986 measure had massive highway spending, for really destructive highway expansion projects; i.e. Hayward Bypass and Hwy 84 Parkway (always a bad sign when highway projects use the words “bypass” or “parkway”). While the 2002 measure also had its share of dumb highway funding, the amounts were significantly less and mostly used on “improving” existing interchanges.

    I will say that 2002 was a mixed result for transit riders. For example, it was supposed to fund a Dumbarton rail line, but those funds were “loaned” to BART (to cover their cost overruns). There was also supposed to be a BRT network, which never happened. And the doubling of transit operation funds was partly offset by cuts in other funding sources. The net result is that the 2002 measure gave transit users some increase in bus service, and two fairly useless BART extension projects.

    Jonathan Reply:

    Is there any stronger argument here than “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?”

  4. joe
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 07:39

    2/3 majority is not democratic. It empowers a small group, a minority rule.

    The Folks who established our government decided it takes a simple majority to pass laws and simple Majoirty to declare war.

    2/3 vote overrides a veto – the executive branch triggers a super Majority – the balance is there.

    What is appealing maybe a simplistic notion by transit advocates and tax buts that 2/3 requirement will 1) only allow the “best” projects and 2) appeasing a larger crowd will root out bad design.

    2/3 assumes the majority of people are stupid so a super majority stops the stupid from approving wasteful spending and transit.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Yes, Virginia, the majority of the people are stupid. They really believe for instance that rich people are going to welcome paying more taxes for such necessities as free gender changes.

    Sadly the real name of the public funding of transit game is crony contracting. The good guys – be they cheerleader, foamers, or technicals – don’t want it that way but it turns out to be just a scam to take ordinary people’s money and give it to friends of the Regime. And the only criterion of a successful outcome is that it can turn a wheel.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    It’s only non-democratic when you don’t like it. Perfect democracy has the librum veto.

    joe Reply:

    I like majority rule Paul, no complaints.

    Prop 25 eliminated the 2/3 vote to pass a state budget and it worked – we have a state budget on time. The minority party that refused to add any revenue in a compromise had 0% input on what was cut. Democracy.

    Eliminate the 2/3 to raise revenue and the minority party will cease to be relevant and reform itself as a less white, less angry and less radical opposition party. We’d have better debate, better laws and better government.

  5. ywhynot
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 09:45

    First time ever I completely disagree with Robert. I feel awkward. 2/3 majority is a good thing for creating taxes through the California proposition process no matter where public opinion is. I am all in for more transit. Probably much more than the next person, but if we start giving lay-person Californian’s the ease to create taxes based on just over a majority on what is typically a very marginally vetted proposition process, California will start getting in more trouble than it already is. When you loose you can either blame the system/process or be better. I recommend you go the be better route before advocating for a short sighted change in policy.

  6. synonymouse
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 12:50

    Video claims post-Prop 30 tax revenue in California fell almost 11% as rich quickly adjusted their finances:

    Some $800mil down in one month

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Same people who told us Mitt Romney was going to win in a landslide? Same people who told us cutting taxes on rich people during the Bush Adminstrations was going to unleash the power of the markets and bring us unprecedented prosperity and labor shortages? The same people who told us that CDOs and CDSes would also make us all rich?

    trentbridge Reply:

    This was the State Controllers report for OCTOBER. According to Mr Chang’s statement:

    “Personal income taxes in the month of November were down $842.5 million (-19.0 percent). Some of the tax revenue associated with Facebook shares came in during the month of October, while budget planners had projected receiving those funds in November.”

    It had zero to do with PROP 30 which passed in the follwing month.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Uh, no, that’s for November. But what it looks like is that the money came in early rather than later. Revenues were down compared to budget figures, but up year over year (except for corporate tax).

  7. Reedman
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 16:12

    Prop 1A, HSR funding, passed in 2008 with 52%. (Wow, what a mandate …). HSR will be paid for out of the general fund is why it didn’t need 2/3.

    Santa Clara County’s Measure B, which funds the BART extension, won in 2008 with 66.78% (yes, it was that close… a margin of 704 votes in a county with a population of 1.8 million….)

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The Iraq War was started by a President who won with 48.5% of the national vote, and was in a statistical tie in the crucial state in the electoral college. On pure principle, I think a majority that suffices for invading other countries ought to suffice for building a railroad.

    Peter Reply:


    joe Reply:

    Why didn’t Prop 13 require 2/3 vote to pass?
    With 62.6%, it would not have passed.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Because taxes and spending are tyranny, and tax cuts are freedom. Also included under freedom: privatized prison complexes with slave labor, vigilante posses against immigrants, warrantless wiretapping, assassinations.

  8. Alon Levy
    Dec 10th, 2012 at 17:58

    The takehome lesson from this is that supermajorities are a tool of people who believe they are weak or going to be weaker, while simple majorities are a tool of people who believe they are strong or going to be stronger. In 1986, and even more so in 1956, simple majority rules built huge expressway networks and shafted transit. Today they go either way, and you’ve stated many times that you think by 2025 they’ll shaft the freeways and fund transit generously (which I mostly agree with, but I’m more uncertain than you are).

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Yep, that is a good shorthand.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Close, Alon, but no cigar:

    The 2/3rd requirement became contentious because the US Supreme Court eliminated the ability of states to have an upper house that was not proportionally represented in the 1960s. If you think about it, what protections other than the “supermajority” rules protected minority rights in California or any state at all in the last fifty years?

    The slipknot of transportation finance has formed because you have county supervisors and state Senators representing more Californians than even a Congressman and no effective check on that power. The mistake would be to think that the supermajority means “game over”, it just means a new method will be co-opted to represent minority rights….

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What rules protected minority rights? None. You can deny people equal rights under the law with a simple majority.

    Reedman Reply:

    When it comes to taxes, there are restrictions. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the US Constitution:

    The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

    Note that the taxes have to uniform throughout. This was put in specifically so that one group of states (a majority) couldn’t tax only the minority (i.e. the majority have to tax themselves as well, and equally).

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yeah, that’s pretty much dead letter with today’s innovations in tax code complications. Just like the clause prohibiting interstate tariffs is dead letter in today’s era of tax subsidies and local content requirements. The Constitution has some really good clauses dealing with common problems of the 1770s, but whereas the things it tried to prevent have evolved since (undeclared war, the above interstate trade barriers, ostensibly neutral tax rules with disparate impact), the actual Constitution hasn’t. Occasionally the Supreme Court has patched things up, but far from consistently.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Article I, Sec. 3.

  9. Peter
    Dec 11th, 2012 at 03:26

    How about if we go one further and take away the power to pass taxes by initiative, in addition to removing the broken initiative system completely (it’s completely gone off its meds; seriously, we’re leaving the finer points of tort law to be decided by people who think a tort is a cake?), and instead give that power back to our elected officials. That way there is always someone who can be held accountable when stuff goes wrong. Direct democracy is useless beyond a small community.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    True. It really sucks for transit in particular. You can’t have a useful transit system if you have direct democracy.

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