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The Shame of Sacramento

Capitol Politicians Set an Ugly Record of Dithering Failure on the State Budget


It’s official: This year’s version of California’s Legislature will be recorded as the lamest, most dysfunctional, dog-ass bunch since statehood.

Students of history know that California became a state as part of the Compromise of 1850, but compromise turns out to be as rare in Sacramento these days as Bear Flags and buffalo. Locked in a three-month stalemate over the state’s $144 billion budget, lawmakers on Tuesday set a new calendar record for fiscal irresponsibility, and are now 80 days past the constitutional deadline for approving a budget.

And the governor says the deadlock may go into next year.

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK: Although the legislative session officially ended on Sunday, both houses will continue to meet because they haven’t passed a budget. This means that each state senator and assemblymember will continue to collect his or her $170-per diem payments-that’s a total of $20,400 each day the Legislature holds session-plus his or her $116,208 annual salary (more for those in “leadership” positions), $5,400 car allowance, mileage, health insurance, and other perks.

Small wonder that Californians, as indicated in a newly released survey, overwhelmingly feel that state government throws away their money: The Public Policy Institute of California poll found that statewide, nearly two-thirds of likely voters said that Sacramento “wastes a lot of money we pay in taxes,” including big majorities among Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.

In addition, more than eight in 10 people-84 percent of likely voters-identified the budget meltdown as a major problem, the highest percentage since shortly after Arnold became governor following the Gray Davis recall. (For the record, Davis was governor at the time the just-shattered record for a late budget was set in 2002-03, and it was he who paid the price.)

As a political matter, the stalemate breaks down like this: Democrats want higher taxes on the rich, but have also agreed to billions of dollars in cuts in the current budget; Governor Schwarzenegger, abandoning his earlier stance, has proposed a sales tax increase, in addition to more cuts; Republican lawmakers are dug in with a no-new-taxes stance.

Because budget approval requires a two-thirds vote in each house, at least a few Republican votes-two in the Senate and six in the Assembly-are needed for passage. Although Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats have given up political ground in negotiations, Republicans can continue to block any plan as long as they hold ranks.

A few days ago, the GOP leadership, after months of refusing to do so, finally publicly presented a budget plan. It seeks to stem the $17 billion deficit solely through cuts and borrowing for the state’s general operating fund from special funds earmarked for specific services and against future lottery revenues. At press time, the Republicans were still crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s to put their proposal into proper bill form for introduction on the Senate floor. When they finally get around to it, doing so will have about as much effect as publishing poetry, as it is certain to be skunked by Democrats.

The Terminator, meanwhile, is frustrated because he can’t deliver a single vote from his own party, and is getting increasingly cranky with his Republican brethren. He told the Fresno Bee last week that he is willing to wait until November or December or even “rolling right into” January to get what he considers a responsible budget.

A final note: The Public Policy Institute poll also found that 80 percent of likely voters-and 74 percent of all adults-said they favor “major changes” in the budget process. No mystery here: The most effective change is a constitutional amendment, reducing the vote needed for budget passage from two-thirds to 55 percent, a standard in effect in nearly every other state that would end the tyranny of the minority in California.

CALLING JUNEAU: Amid the national fuss stirred up by disclosure that the teenage daughter of GOP veep wannabe Sarah Palin is pregnant, public attitudes about Proposition 4, to prohibit most abortions for teenagers without notifying their parents, are closely divided: 47 percent of likely voters favor parental notification, and 44 percent oppose it in the Public Policy Institute poll. In a separate question, however, 65 percent oppose the government passing more laws restricting abortion, with 30 percent favoring more laws. “It’s not surprising to see voter support for a concept at a higher level than voter support for a specific proposition,” said poll taker Mark Baldassare. “The burden of proof is on the yes side to convince people that their proposal is worthy of support.”

See Jerry Roberts blog regularly about the state of the Golden State at independent.com/capitol-letters.



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