Thursday, May 7, 2009
What is the May 19 Special Election really all about? Power.
While television ads, political mailings and news coverage of the state’s seemingly never-ending budget battles would lead a person to believe that the election is about ratifying a $40 billion solution to California’s budget problems, it is not that simple.
The actual battle is between two irreconcilable belief systems concerning the roles and functions of state government: Republican and Democratic.
IN THE CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE, THESE TWO BELIEF SYSTEMS BATTLE DAY AND NIGHT.
The Democratic belief system holds that state government is, in many ways, the great social elevator. Democrats believe government exists to accomplish a couple of major objectives: First, to provide some financial relief to those who are not winners in the prevailing economic system; second, to have robust programs of public education, health and human services, and corrections so that virtually everyone will have a chance (or even a second or third chance) to succeed. They believe, for example, that public schools need serious infusions of public money in order to be more successful (California is dead last in per-pupil spending among the 50 states).
The Republican belief system tells us state government is mostly an assemblage of social experiments and engineering that provides little real opportunity, and diverts funds from the private sector that is much better at providing real, market-responsive opportunities. Republicans believe, again for example, that the government schools (their words) are hostages of teachers unions, and that throwing more money at the problem is wasteful. They’d prefer to inject competition into the education equation through, among other methods, vouchers.
In the venue of the California Legislature, these two belief systems battle day and night, and never more so than during the deliberations and maneuvering that lead to state’s annual budget.
Since California is a Democratic state, it would seem that they should win the war of ideas and belief systems.
California has, for many decades, had significantly more voters registered with the Democratic Party than Republican. The composition of the state Legislature reflects that partisan fact. Democrats maintain substantial majorities in both the Assembly and Senate.
However, California’s often amended Constitution provides a few elements that re-grade the policy-making playing field. The effects increase the power of the minority party beyond their number in the electorate at-large, or in either legislative house. Chief among such elements is the requirement that two-thirds of the membership of the Assembly and Senate must vote in the affirmative for the budget to be adopted. In 47 of the 50 states in the Union, a simple majority vote sends the state’s budget to the governor; only California, Rhode Island and Arkansas have a super-majority vote requirement.
Add to this mix the impacts of redistricting. In 2001, Democrats and Republicans agreed on what Robert Hertzberg, then-Speaker of the Assembly characterized as “an incumbent protection plan.” While redistricting should consider changes in population, adherence to the Voting Rights Act, and respect for “communities of interest,” the plan considered incumbent protection, incumbent protection and incumbent protection.
The result has been a Legislature composed largely of Democrats who are a bit to the left of the voters of their party, and Republicans who are somewhat to the right of their rank-and-file.
Some might argue that this is not so bad; given that the state is composed of Democrats, Republicans, a large segment (nearly 20 percent) of “decline-to-state” voters, and a smattering of voters aligned with third parties, the budget should reflect such diversity. Instead, the system simply breaks down, and produces a budget product that is unsatisfactory to everyone.
Let’s examine the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal year budget battles. With the world economy heading into recession beginning in late ’07, California’s economic condition went from a case of the sniffles, to a serious cold, to pneumonia in a matter of months. Rosy revenue projections, and underestimated caseloads in public education, health and human services, and criminal justice caused a yawning deficit. After months of disagreement, a very fragile deal was reached – one that caused the state Senate Republican Caucus to throw their leader off the political cliff, and the state Republican Party to withhold political and financial support next year for any GOP legislator who voted for the budget. Why? Because the Republicans believe the system had been violated when a handful of Republicans voted for a budget that contained tax increases? Sort of.
But the core reason Republicans are in an uproar about the issue is that they were on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically change the architecture of California government.
In February, when the budget was adopted, with $15 billion in tax increases, $15 billion in program cuts, and a few billon dollars in borrowing, the vast majority of Republican legislators let out a cry of frustration. If the battles had gone on for a mere two or three more weeks, California would have run out of cash, the state’s borrowing capacity would have been severely limited, and massive layoffs of public employees at both the state and county levels would have ensued. The only solution then, according to Republican legislators, would have been to reengineer California, including major restructuring of public education and corrections/prisons.
On education, the Republican solution would have been to advance a massive program of school vouchers. Vouchers, in principle, would allow parents or guardians of school-aged children to take their “per-pupil funds” to a public or private school of their choosing, thus, in their view, creating competition. This market-based idea holds that both public and private schools would strive for educational excellence as a way to attract parents shopping around for their child’s best chance at a good education. (The counter argument is that such a system would leave the public schools with the responsibility to educate special needs students, non-English speaking students and children with a wide variety of challenges – poverty, health problems, nutrition deficiencies – and little funds to meet such needs.)
It is also the long-held belief of most Republican legislators that the real failure of the so-called corrections system to correct much of anything is the result of an enormously strong prison guard union (the California Correctional Peace Officers Association) that has the power to reject any real reforms. This is not an entirely specious argument, although how to solve the problems of the corrections system is another matter. The GOP solution is to, once again, inject competition through contracting out prison operations and management to the private sector (think here of the Corrections Corporation of America).
These are but two examples of how Republican legislators see a future. A future which would amount, essentially, to a dismantling of California government as we know it.
The May 19 special election will result in the failure of all ballot measures except for the last, which prohibits legislators from receiving a salary increase in years where the budget is in deficit. When those measures fail, and Gov. Schwarznegger announces that the budget deficit is nearly $20 billion, Republican legislators will once again try to reengineer California’s state government. This time, there will be no GOP votes for tax increases or other compromises. They will argue that the message from the electorate is that voters want the problem solved through cuts and fundamental government restructuring. This will be a battle to the death of two irreconcilable belief systems.
Democrats will either have to offer real governance reform, or face the real possibility that a minority within a minority political party will prevail.
Non-partisan budget reforms are at hand, and will help solve this dilemma. Together with Santa Cruz former Republican secretary of state Bruce McPherson, I serve on the board of directors of California Forward. This non-partisan group is advancing a package of reforms we believe will allow California to modernize the tools for policy makers to propose, debate and adopt an annual state budget that reflects the hopes and aspirations of California’s majority of Democrats, independents and many Republicans.
The reforms include two-year budgeting; increased oversight and accountability for program effectiveness and spending; a “lock box” for revenue surpluses that could only be used to reduce or avoid deficits; and a change in the vote threshold for approving the budget. The California Forward board is debating this last point.
My view is that the two-thirds vote requirement should be reduced to 55 percent unless the majority party has not produced and sent to the governor a balanced budget by June 15 each year. Failure of the majority party to meet that deadline would trigger the vote threshold to two-thirds. In other words, as in 47 other states, the majority must get the job done.
While I support the May 19 ballot measures, I do so believing that they are the best bad package we have. When they fail, we must on May 20, be prepared to advance a comprehensive package of governance reforms that will provide modern tools for governance in the 21st century.