Friday, February 20, 2009

LA Times: Stop the budget madness with some common-sense reforms

From the LA Times:

Steve Lopez 
February 20, 2009

I had my toothbrush and sleeping bag at the ready, along with a boarding pass for a flight to Sacramento. My plan was to sack out in the Capitol until I was thrown out or they had a budget agreement, whichever came first.

So imagine my shock and disappointment when I awoke Thursday to find that an early-morning agreement had been reached -- and only 15 weeks late.

Nice going, Sacramento!

To hear Gov. Schwarzenegger tell it, you'd think he'd just won another Mr. Universe contest, or whatever-the-heck dumbbell competition he used to be involved in. And it was a victory of sorts. Yeah, they made some moves I don't like -- schools are getting whacked again, the elderly and disabled aren't faring much better, and air pollution regs are relaxed, for instance -- but the gang-that-couldn't-budget-straight ended up with a tough combination of spending cuts, tax increases and borrowing to close a projected $42-billion budget deficit.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if this kind of stalemate would have happened under a stronger governor and stronger legislative leaders.

"No, it wouldn't have," said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles political strategist who worked in Sacramento for 10 years.

Gov. Pete Wilson would have locked people in a room until it was settled, Sragow said. And legislative leaders Willie Brown and John Burton would have called on their decades of legislative experience and coalition-building to trade favors and get the job done.

I called Burton, who served six years as Senate president pro tem, to see if he agreed. "This probably could have been settled in five days," he said. 

The current Senate pro tem, Darrell Steinberg, is one of the good guys in state government. He's smart, a workaholic and extremely knowledgeable. But he's been in charge only since last summer. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who is equally impressive, has been at the helm only since last May.

"Both Karen and Darrell are collaborative and very suited for their jobs," said Sragow. "But they don't have a lot of clout, and so their ability to maneuver is fairly limited."


Because term limits, by design, give the boot to anyone who knows what they're doing, he said, and, for misguided reasons, "voters love term limits." 

Yeah, they love the concept of throwing the bums out after a few years. But do they also love the idea of layoff notices for thousands of state workers? Do they like seeing programs for the elderly threatened because state funds are frozen and do they like the threat of layoffs for their children's teachers, in part because everyone in Sacramento is a relative amateur?

Lifting term limits would be a good start in getting more out of Sacramento, not less. Look, if they're not doing the job, throw them out. But there's no need to require that everyone in Sacramento be on the low end of the learning curve in terms of experience.

This annual budget nonsense has a lot to do, as well, with the state's over-reliance on wildly fluctuating income tax revenue, and with California's requirement that the budget be passed by a two-thirds majority.

Make it a simple majority vote, already. We would have been done with this thing three months ago. And as Burton asks, was the end result so brilliant it had to take this long? 

The last piece of needed reform is to move the Legislature away from an election system that just about guarantees we'll keep getting soft-headed Democrats who sell their souls to labor leaders and knuckle-dragging Republicans who say the same thing every time you pull their string: "No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes."

Maybe the deal struck by Santa Maria Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, who cast the deciding budget vote in return for open primaries, can move the state away from the rigid partisanship that rules Sacramento but doesn't truly reflect Californians' more moderate politics.

Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California points out that Republican legislators are out of touch with their constituents, according to a January poll.

"About half of the Republicans said they favored mostly spending cuts as a solution," said Baldassare. "But lots of Republicans, not just the governor, saw that in the current fiscal reality, some mix of spending cuts and tax increases would be necessary."

The same is true nationally, as a current New Yorker article points out. According to one poll, 28% of Republicans and 56% of independent voters supported President Obama's stimulus plan, but only three Senate Republicans signed on. The problem is the way districts are carved up both nationally and in California, a process that makes extremism safe and compromise irrelevant.

So who exactly do California's GOP legislators represent?

"They represent the late great Howard Jarvis -- some philosophy that people don't like government and don't want to pay for what they've got," said Burton. "But they want cops, they want fire, they wants roads, they want schools."

As Burton tallies it, the Republicans won this budget battle despite agreeing to $14 billion in new taxes.

"They played the Democrats like a Stradivarius," said Burton. "They kept saying no, no, no, no, no, and the Dems were trying to solve the problem saying how about this, how about that, how about this? . . . The Dems used to be afraid of Tom McClintock, but he's gone, so I don't know who's scaring the . . . out of them now."

It wouldn't have happened on his watch, Burton says. "I would have shot somebody, or somebody would have shot me."

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