California badly needs someone, some party, to just make a decision about a state budget and be held accountable for the consequences.
The state has needed that for years.
But it's impossible while a two-thirds majority vote is required for legislative passage of a budget and a one-third minority can stand in the way.
Can't the governor and the two parties just get together and compromise? Figure out a solution that's acceptable to all three? One — and this is the key — that honestly balances the budget, closing a deficit projected at $19 billion?
No. Not an honest budget free of patchwork and gimmicks. Not one acceptable to all three: the governor, the majority and the minority.
Back in another epoch, yes. Back before term limits sapped lawmakers of experience and courage and expanded the power of special interests. Before right-wing radio entertainers scared Republicans. Before the politicians became so polarized.
And before a two-thirds majority vote also became necessary to raise taxes, a little-noticed feature of property tax-cutting Proposition 13 three decades ago.
Proposition 25 on the November ballot would help. It would reduce the required budget vote to a simple majority. But it would retain the two-thirds vote needed for tax hikes — despite what an apparently misinformed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger claims.
Two courts have ruled that Prop. 25 does not jeopardize the two-thirds tax vote.
The business lobby and the GOP — invariably the minority party in the Legislature — oppose Prop. 25, ostensibly because the two-thirds budget vote keeps spending down. Studies have shown the opposite.
Those final Republican votes needed to reach two-thirds too often are bought with pork, corporate tax loopholes or other payoffs. Business lobbyists broker the sales to benefit their clients.
While the dickering drags on, summer after summer, real people actually suffer. Vendors who sell to the state aren't paid. College students don't receive their Cal-Grant money. Child development centers are stiffed. Community colleges and even some K-12 schools are denied their promised funds.
Meanwhile, the state is a few weeks away from issuing IOUs again. And it can't borrow for building projects because there's no budget. Its bond credit ratings are the lowest in the nation.
The state Capitol doesn't function because the rules won't allow it. The budget is already two months late.
The gridlock was on noisy display Tuesday in both houses of the Legislature when two budget options were debated and voted on — the Democrats' and a Republican version of Schwarzenegger's.
The Democratic bill received a simple majority vote in each house. The Republican-Schwarzenegger plan didn't come close.
Of course, the Democratic budget relied on $4.5 billion in corporate, income and oil taxes that would have required a two-thirds vote. That would have been impossible to obtain, at least at this stage.
So what good would a majority-vote budget be? It would at least get things moving. The majority party could adopt its spending priorities. The governor could line-item veto excess spending.
Moderate Republicans — presumably there'll be a few more when open primaries and redistricting reform take effect in 2012 — might be willing to compromise on taxes if a budget could proceed without them. Jump aboard or be left behind.
This year, a budget ultimately will be enacted, although all sides seem on pace to leave the problem for the next governor and Legislature. Whatever is passed must be cobbled together with borrowing and tricks.
The immediate problems:
*Democrats cut programs by $30 billion last year and are willing to whittle some more but are about done with kicking the lame, the elderly and kids. Schwarzenegger and Republicans have proposed eliminating state welfare and child care for impoverished moms seeking work. Democrats won't go there.
*Republicans point out that the state raised taxes temporarily last year, and voters rejected an extension. A recession is no time to hike taxes again, they say.
"I went down your path," Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) told Democrats during the Senate floor debate, practically apologizing for his vote to increase taxes. "I did something Republicans don't do."
And speaking to "Mr. and Mrs. California," Ashburn pledged: "I will never raise your taxes again."
If you're a tea-leaves reader, however, you'll note that the term-limited senator used the verb "raise." The Legislature could delay scheduled corporate, income and sales tax cuts for another year or two. That technically wouldn't be "raising" taxes. And it could pick up a few billion.
*Schwarzenegger sees the political grim reaper as he nears the end of his term. He frets about his legacy and all those unfulfilled promises of "reform."
His pitch for the history books: Legislators "have fought me on every step of the way," as he told the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
Never mind that Schwarzenegger has yet to master the art of dealing with politicians, as fellow Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian did while holding various offices for many years. There's an advantage to being a "career politician."
Regardless, Schwarzenegger has vowed not to sign a budget that isn't accompanied by budget, pension and tax reforms.
Democratic leaders tell me they're willing to deliver those reforms "in a heartbeat," as one says. But they need something from the governor in return — some give on taxes.
So Schwarzenegger needs to step up and make a decision about how long he's willing to let this budget debacle drag on — and how badly he wants those reforms for his legacy.
Thu, September 2, 2010
by George Skelton