Monday, February 16, 2009

California Budget Follies: Two-Thirds Of Nothing Is Still Nothing

From the LA Times:

Reporting from Sacramento -- Ending a weekend marathon of tense negotiations, bleary-eyed state lawmakers late Sunday suspended their bid to plug California's $41-billion deficit but vowed to continue working today to halt the state's dizzying slide toward financial collapse.

Despite support from legislative leaders in both parties, the budget deal became mired in politics. The two-day hunt for a third Republican in the state Senate willing to vote for $14.4 billion in temporary tax increases proved futile. Lawmakers and staff said there were enough GOP votes in the Assembly for passage in that house.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), clearly tired and angry, said lawmakers would resume negotiations this morning despite the Presidents Day state holiday.

"People are exhausted," Steinberg said, "so I thought long and hard about whether or not to continue this through the night. . . . We're gonna come back at 11 tomorrow morning and we're going to work again, and we're gonna come back every day until we get this done."

The deal appeared done at the weekend's start. Democrats already had sprinkled the budget with concessions to recalcitrant legislators, including more money for Orange County to please Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana), who had promised during his campaign not to raise taxes.

And two Senate Republicans were expected to vote for the package -- Dave Cogdill of Modesto, who played a role in negotiating the deal, and Roy Ashburn, a Bakersfield Republican in his final term. Among the concessions Ashburn won was a proposed $10,000 tax break for new home buyers.

Another key GOP senator, Dave Cox of Fair Oaks, was counted on by his own party's leaders to join the majority Democrats to win the two-thirds vote needed for passage. But Cox balked at the big tax bite.

The Legislature's Democratic leaders responded by ordering an overnight lockdown of the Capitol, forbidding lawmakers to leave the giant gold-domed building. As the leaders shuttled among offices trying to find the last vote needed to end the fiscal impasse, Capitol staffers got by on catnaps in chairs and couches or on office floors. A few slipped out for a shave or shower.

"I got an hour of sleep," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). "We are not going to leave until we get this deal done. We will go as long as it takes."

But by about 8:30 Sunday night, the Senate had adjourned, and the Assembly followed soon afterward.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had remained in the Capitol all night Saturday in an unsuccessful bid to bring Republicans on board, something he has had great difficulty achieving throughout his tenure.

"We're just searching for that one more vote that we need in order to get the budget done," Schwarzenegger told reporters Sunday evening after a closed-door visit with Senate Democrats. "What is most important is that we hang in there. They should not leave. They should continue with the fight. We will not let go. We will not give up until there is a budget done."

From the California Progress Report:

Eleven of the Media News Group papers - including the San Jose Mercury News - published editorials on their front page criticizing the budget mess. Notably, these papers placed most of the blame where it actually belongs - on the Republicans. From the Mercury News editorial:

The governor and all 120 legislators share responsibility for this. But most of the blame for the immediate crisis falls on Republicans in the Legislature, who this past summer - to a person - signed a pledge to not raise taxes. That was before an already large deficit mushroomed, making the need for more revenue imperative. Since then, Democrats and the Republican governor have offered significant compromise, but GOP lawmakers cling to ideological purity - schools, health care and other essential responsibilities be damned.

These lawmakers constitute barely over one-third of the Legislature. But because the California Constitution requires a two-thirds vote on the budget, it enables the tyranny of a minority to trump majority rule.

This day didn't sneak up on anyone. It's the result of too much borrowing and too little political courage over too many years - lavish spending in good times and insufficient restraint in bad. For this, Democrats, who've controlled the Legislature, and the governor share responsibility. Compounding the problem are spending initiatives that bind the Legislature's hands. Voters have themselves to blame for these.

Obviously it's not a perfect editorial - California doesn't really have a spending problem - but it's good to see MNG papers, owned by a notorious right-wing union buster make such a strong case for Republican ideology being at the core of the crisis.

The Monterey Herald was even more direct in their version of the editorial:

The best hope is that the people will become angry enough to get the message across, especially to the Republicans, that they need to get the job done or get out of the way.

The stalemate is the result of the GOP's "no new taxes" pledge. It may have made for good headlines months ago, but sustaining it to the point of budgetary chaos is irresponsible....

A huge part of the problem is the state Constitution's requirement that budgets be approved by a two-thirds vote. It has not prevented past overspending, but it enables the minority party, Republicans for the moment, to play the spoiler role no matter the consequences.

It is time to join the majority of states without a super-majority provision. It is time to say goodbye to those who pretend to stand on principle. The no-tax pledge may have been sincere at the start, but it has become only a bargaining chip. Republicans are simply holding out for maximum impact.

Does this mean it's now conventional wisdom that Republican ideology and the 2/3 rule are to blame? I sure hope so. These editorials should bolster the case for an aggressive push by progressives and Democrats against the Republicans and the 2/3 rule in particular. If/when there is a special election this year, eliminating the 2/3 rule must be on there.

Let's hope these editorials will percolate around the state, especially to some of the bigger news outlets, and produce some accurate reporting on the crisis for a change - California is broke because Republicans wanted it to happen.

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