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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Imprisoned by a Budget Crisis

It doesn’t get much national attention, but the endless state budget crisis in California looks like a microcosm of what the national scene could soon resemble if the public is not presented with better information, real choices, and structural reforms in how decisions are made.
To make a very long story short, California’s decision-making process on fiscal issues is a real nightmare. Ballot initiatives have imposed a two-thirds requirement on legislative decisions at either the state or local level to raise revenues. Other initiatives have earmarked revenues for particular types of spending, and have created a vast shell-game where revenues and spending are traded back and forth between state and local jurisdictions. Republicans have long used the two-thirds requirement to keep greater revenues off the table. And the public seems to have no appetite for either specific revenue increases or spending cuts.
Believe it or not, it could be, and recently was, worse. Until Proposition 25 passed in 2010, even enacting a budget in California required a two-thirds vote. But given the two-thirds requirement on taxes, the practical effect of Prop 25 has simply been to offer the Democratically-controlled (but not by a two-thirds vote) legislature the choice of caving to Republican demands for spending-cut-only measures to balance the budget, or to resort to short-term fixes and accounting gimmicks.
The latter option is what the legislature has just chosen, frustrating Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to keep pressure on Republicans to agree to a referendum that would enable voters to approve a package of extensions of temporary taxes and fees established during the last mega-crisis. Brown promptly vetoed the budget, and then got an assist in his pressuring efforts from Democratic State Controller John Chiang, who issued a constitutionally dubious but popular order declaring the budget “unbalanced” and then suspending pay for legislators until they complied with the state’s balanced-budget law.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls show Californians would welcome Brown’s revenue referendum, but might very well vote against it. And moreover, polls consistently show majorities of Californians opposing spending cuts in virtually every area of state government other than corrections, where big majorities support cuts and oppose tax increases to pay the bills.
That’s ironic, since the U.S. Supreme Court (in a controversial 5-4 decision) recently ordered the state to take drastic actions to reduce prison overcrowding and supply better health care to inmates. You may recall that California was the original home to “three strikes” legislation and other mandatory sentencing measures, some imposed by ballot initiative.
So there is no apparent end in sight to the budget gridlock unless Brown and Chiang can force a handful of Republicans to risk their careers by voting for the revenue-extender referendum in defiance of party orthodoxy.
Californians may very well break the gridlock in 2012 by giving Democrats a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature, as initial readings of its new nonpartisan “citizens redistricting” system indicate might well happen. But it’s a really bad way to run a state, feeding the very public cynicism that leads to ever-greater restrictions on the ability of elected officials to make decisions. And it’s certainly what we can expect nationally if current conservative demands for arbitrary restrictions on fiscal policymaking are enacted.

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