Supermajority budget rules require a state to obtain more than a majority vote of the legislature, typically two-thirds or three-fifths of the votes, to pass a budget bill. Such budget rules are rarer than rules requiring supermajorities to raise new taxes (i.e., tax restrictions). Critics of supermajority rules argue they can cause late budgets and political gridlock; proponents claim they restrain government spending. Most research, however, suggests both assertions are overstated.1
Fiscal Effects of Supermajority Rules
Studying the effects of supermajority budget rules can be difficult because so few states have adopted these provisions. Also, fiscal and political conditions vary across states, making it difficult to disentangle the perceived relationship between supermajority rules and budget outcomes.
- Do they restrain spending?
Contrary to the perception that supermajority rules will restrain spending, higher spending may be necessary to form a winning budget coalition. A 2015 study examining data on states from 1970 to 2007 found that, in states with many legislative districts, requiring a supermajority to pass a budget or enact new taxes is more likely to lead to increased spending.
One explanation is that obtaining a supermajority requires buy-in from more district representatives, which leads to representatives exchanging favors or making deals to secure votes.
- Do they cause late budgets?
Pundits and voters have long postulated that supermajority budget rules make consensus among lawmakers difficult, in turn causing late budgets. A 2012 study, however, found no relationship between supermajority voting rules and late budgets. Rather, this and other research have found that divided government (where no single party is in control of the legislature and governor’s office) and budget complexity are more likely to be associated with a late budget.
“Vetogate” is the term some researchers use for supermajority rules because such rules grant the minority party more power than it would otherwise have in the budget process, creating an informal veto point for legislation.
Supermajority Rules in Practice: California
California’s tendency to pass a late budget was often attributed to its supermajority requirement, which was in place from 1933 to 2010.
However, California has a history of divided government, and research has shown that both split legislatures and split branches can drive late budgets.
- Before 2010, California was one of the few states that required a legislative supermajority to pass a budget.
- In the 1990s, the California Citizens Budget Commission recommended that the state drop its two-thirds majority budget rule, arguing that the provision did nothing to reduce spending and merely contributed to political gridlock.
- A 2008 report also concluded that the supermajority rule did not effectively constrain spending. The report found that California’s spending and revenues were similar to outcomes in less institutionally constrained states.
- In 2010, California voters passed Proposition 25, or the On-Time Budget Act, which reduced the requirement to a simple majority. But other state budget analysts questioned whether the proposition would correct the state’s most pressing budget woes.
Which States Impose Supermajority Rules
With the removal of the California requirement, only Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Rhode Island require a supermajority to pass a budget. Thirteen states (including California, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Rhode Island) have supermajority rules to pass new taxes or revenues.
Source: National Association of State Budget Officers, Budget Processes in the States (Washington, DC: National Association of State Budget Officers, 2015).
1For more information, see Megan Randall and Kim Rueben, Sustainable Budgeting in the States: Evidence on State Budget Institutions and Practice (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2017).