Thursday, February 12, 2009
While I share the frustration expressed in Weekly Publisher Erik Cushman’s commentary, “Legislators are bailing on California’s fiscal crisis,” (“Dire Straits for the State,” Jan. 29-Feb. 4), I’m disappointed he didn’t offer a more detailed analysis of the structural reasons for the gridlock. Simplification of the problem as “inactivity from the Legislature” severely understates the gravity of the crisis California faces.
The current budget crisis is not a development that occurred overnight. California has not met the June 15 constitutional deadline to pass the budget since the millennium and has been repeatedly stalled because of inherent structural defects. Unfortunately, blocking passage of the budget has become a Republican tool to promote party ideals and represents a disengagement from a process requiring compromise to succeed. Consequently, politics and ideology override the interests of those we are elected to serve and the process breaks down.
“POLITICS AND IDEOLOGY OVERRIDE THE INTERESTS OF THOSE WE ARE ELECTED TO SERVE.’’
The biggest structural impediment to addressing California’s chronic budget problem is the two-thirds vote requirement. For a budget to even reach the Governor’s desk, it must first receive support from at least two-thirds of the members of both the state Assembly and Senate. This threshold sets a prohibitively high bar, especially considering that only two other states, Rhode Island and Arkansas, have such a requirement.
The irony of the two-thirds requirement is that many Californians have acknowledged that this vote threshold is extremely difficult to achieve and have actively sought, and enacted, a lower vote requirement when working to solve their own local financing problems. In 2000, voters supported a Constitutional reform that permits school districts throughout the state to pass school construction bond measures with a 55 percent majority, reduced from the prior 66.6 percent supermajority requirement. Voters responded to the structural impediment blocking school construction and will have to do the same if California is to remove the chokehold imposed by the two-thirds budget vote requirement.
The current structural design for the passage of the state budget with a two-thirds vote cedes ultimate budget authority to Republicans and is a setup for stalemate. Over the years, the problem has been exacerbated by Republican legislators’ refusal to discuss the issue of revenue increases. Most objective observers, including the non-partisan Legislative Analyst, agree that any reasonable resolution to our current budget problem must include revenue increases balanced with thoughtful programmatic cuts. To date, there have been no Republican legislators willing to support such a compromise. Prospects for compromise are even less likely in light of conservative media threats to recall or campaign against Republicans who support any revenue increases.
Democrats have demonstrated willingness to make significant sacrifices to reach a budget compromise. In an attempt to avoid California collapsing and shutting down, Democrats proposed a viable budget solution in mid-December. Though there was something for everyone to dislike in the budget proposal, and despite some core Democratic principles being sacrificed, we voted for the plan. Our belief in moving forward with some semblance of a budget that kept Californians working took priority over ideology and politics. Unfortunately, the Governor’s veto proved his mission was not consistent with ours.
The challenge has been further complicated because the Governor and Republican legislators are demanding that environmental and labor protections be added to the negotiating agenda, in a cynical exploitation of the current crisis.
I understand how conflict on core principles can lead to intransigence. Yet, every day the budget impasse continues, more people suffer. I am mindful of the responsibility I shoulder as we work to promote solutions to the budget crisis. I am prepared to vote “yes” on a budget that will most certainly include difficult cuts to vital programs and services, because I know that sacrifices must be made in order to reach a resolution. However, I expect my Republican colleagues to do the same. I remain optimistic that a budget agreement can be reached that will provide Californians with a just and fair solution in the face of a dire economic crisis.