Tag Archives: California Forward

It’s the Ideology, Stupid!

Today’s LA Times has an interesting series of op-eds by historians and authors examining how past governors dealt with budget crises. It’s an interesting look not only at how those governors all helped build the prosperous state that we’re living off of today, but also how the real problem with the budget isn’t a lack of pragmatism or deal-making, but ideology. And since the articles were commissioned by California Backward they are particularly important in shaping how we will respond to this crisis.

The profile of Pete Wilson by Greg Lucas and Ronald Reagan by Lou Cannon both argue that pragmatism and a willingness to deal is the key to budget success. Lucas’ portrait of the contentious 1991 budget negotiations is designed to make us wistful even for Pete Wilson’s leadership (if you forget 1994, that is). Wilson understood that tax increases were going to be necessary to balance the budget AND to get Democratic support, so he outflanked them by proposing his own increases and then spending the summer cutting the deals necessary to get Dems to agree and to turn enough Republicans, one by one, to his view.

Cannon’s portrait of Reagan emphasizes similar qualities – that despite their “novice amateur” abilities, Reagan and his advisors knew that a tax increase was necessary to balance the 1967 budget and avoid crippling cuts. Reagan did so, and therefore helped continue California’s remarkable 20th century economic expansion by supporting the government services that growth depended on.

What both these portraits miss – alongside Jim Newton’s profile of Earl Warren, an unconvincing effort to see Arnold as a latter-day Warren, is the role of ideology in the budget. Warren, Reagan and Wilson were able to negotiate budget solutions because they did not define their Republicanism by a virulent anti-tax conservatism – even in Reagan’s case, and Reagan had spent the 1960s leading the right-wing takeover of the California Republican Party.

They also governed at times when Democrats had spines. This was particularly true in 1991, where Democratic intransigence and demands for a better deal were all that forced Pete Wilson to propose and stick to his tax plans. Most of those taxes survived until the late 1990s, when led by Tom McClintock, the state legislature – including Democrats – voted to spend that tax money on foolish and short-sighted tax cuts rather than putting it in a rainy day fund or investing in infrastructure. During Arnold’s term Democrats have caved in to his demands so often that Arnold no longer sees Democratic demands as worth taking seriously.

The ascension of Tom McClintockism within the Republican Party goes to the heart of the budget matter, showing that it is about ideology, not deal-making. How can today’s Republican cut deals on taxes when the Howard Jarvis Association, CRA, and other right-wing groups are ready to destroy a Republican legislator’s career for doing so? The only Republican not in thrall to those folks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is instead in thrall to Milton Friedman’s shock doctrine theories.

So it was very welcome to read Ethan Rarick’s profile of Pat Brown. Rarick is the author of the excellent California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown. In his profile Rarick refuses to emphasize Brown’s leadership qualities and instead focuses on the underlying ideological and structural contexts. He was the only author to mention the 2/3 requirement. And he understood the importance of ideology:

More important than procedural changes, however, are ideological ones.

In Brown’s day, the country remained in the grip of the so-called New Deal consensus, a mood far more receptive to the idea that government played a constructive role in our society and had to be amply funded. Brown used to say of himself, “I’m a big-government man,” a phrase that would nowadays be uttered by no politician, left, right or center.

It’s true that Republicans tended to be more skeptical of government than Democrats, but they were neither unanimous nor intransigent on the point….

So I’m quite sure I know what Pat Brown would do if he were governor today, or at least what he would want to do and try to do. He would trumpet government’s positive role, insist that those who benefit the most from our society should pay the most, and set about enacting policies to create a public sector that was funded both fully and fairly. In short, he would raise taxes, especially on the rich.

But the real question is not what Pat Brown would do. Given the differences in ideological climate between his day and ours, the real question is: Would we let him?

It’s an excellent set of points he makes. I wonder though if California Backward will even listen to him. A group composed of centrist high Broderists is much more likely to prefer a call for more deal-making that will nevertheless produce conservative solutions to a rousing defense of the policies that made California great, and an attack on the conservative policies that have produced this budget crisis.

California Backward

I know, I know, it’s too easy. But what better headline can one come up with to assess the ridiculous  and ineffective solutions proposed by Leon Panetta’s high-powered, high cost group of high Broderists to solve the budget crisis?

George Skelton’s column provides some of their early recommendations:

* Requiring new or expanded programs — whether created by the Legislature or ballot initiative — to contain a specific funding source. That could be either new taxes or money gleaned from another program that is eliminated.

* Regularly examining spending programs to determine whether they should be revised, reduced or rubbed out.

* Also regularly reviewing tax loopholes to see if they’re still needed: “Treat tax breaks like spending.”

* Creating a rainy-day fund fed by unexpected tax gushes. When revenue dwindles, dip into the fund. Or use it for one-time public works projects or even tax rebates.

* Modernizing the tax system “to reflect the contemporary economy.” Extend the sales tax to services while reducing the overall tax rate.

* Focusing on multiyear spending plans, rather than merely passing one-year budgets.

* Granting more power and responsibility to local governments.

* Changing the two-thirds majority vote requirement for budget passage. It wasn’t suggested what the vote should be, but any change must be tied to “other reforms designed to improve performance, accountability and public trust.”

Nowhere is the structural revenue shortfall discussed. Instead Panetta and friends take Republican framing to the budget, believing that the problem is too much spending. Nowhere are the state’s pressing problems of underfunded education, health care, and public transportation discussed. It’s as if those issues don’t exist – as if this is 1985 and gas is at $1.20, a year at UC at $2,000, and health insurance plentiful and affordable.

The California Forward proposals are as backward-looking as anything we’ve yet seen, an effort to continue obsolete 20th century assumptions, an effort to avoid confronting 21st century realities.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the group also embraces the unnecessary redistricting reform – an inherently pro-Republican proposal that should suggest where this group’s allegiances actually lie.

Skelton takes their bait in his column, and argues – against all evidence – that the problem is simply that Republicans and Democrats won’t talk to each other:

The reformers are prepared to take their proposals to the ballot in 2010 if they’re ignored by the Legislature. But they’re hoping the lawmakers will adopt at least incremental changes. A good time to start will be during this summer’s budget negotiations. The reforms could “give Republicans a little comfort on spending and how tax dollars are used,” Panetta theorizes.

But first the politicians have to start talking to each other.

Here’s a suggestion: Turn off the BlackBerrys and cellphones.

Better yet, lock them in a desk. Look people in the eye. Smile. Sit down and deal.

This is ridiculous to the point of not understanding California politics. Someone as experienced as Skelton ought to know the real problem is with ideology and the rules. The 2/3 rule allows far-right Republicans to hold the state hostage to their rabid anti-tax views, which are not representative of the state’s public opinion. It’s not gerrymandering that enables this, or a refusal to talk – but the very real fact that the moment a Republican deviates from the firm anti-tax line the Club for Growth, the Howard Jarvis Association, the CRA and even the CRP will come down on that legislator like a ton of bricks. His or her primary opponent will be well-funded and his or her hopes of re-election and higher office are over.

How does Skelton not understand this?

Skelton, Panetta, and the other high Broderists wish it were 1974 all over again. It’s not. It’s a shame what remains of our state’s media prefers nostalgic flights of fancy to realistic assessments of present-day issues.

The High Broderists Come To Sacramento

Seeking to increase the statewide per capita vomit output, this $16 million dollar boondoggle called California Forward continued its weeklong rollout with yet another fawning article, this time from Shane Goldmacher.

Could late and unbalanced budgets, along with partisan gridlock, disappear from Sacramento?

That’s the goal of a new bipartisan political foundation that unveiled its campaign Wednesday to improve state government, bringing along a three-year, $15.9 million budget and high hopes for overhauling the way the state does business.

If there’s one thing we’ve seen over the years, it’s that bipartisan unelected commissions really do change everything.  After all, the Iraq Study Group got us out of the war, right?

“California cannot be a leader in the 21st century if its government is not functioning effectively and efficiently for the people of this state,” said the group’s co-chairman, Leon Panetta, a Democrat who has served in Congress and as chief of staff to President Clinton.

Thomas McKernan, a wealthy Republican activist in Orange County and CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California, is the other co-chairman.

The foundation’s leaders promised it will differ from past reform coalitions. As board member and former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, a Fresno Republican, put it, California Forward has “the resources to get the job done.”

You don’t need ten cents to know what has to be done in California.  You need to let elected officials govern.  I believe in checks and balances, but here we have barriers and deadbolts.  And guess what, the entire state understands this already.  Well over 2/3 of the state believe major changes need to be employed in the budget process, like eliminating the stupid requirement allowing 1/3 of the legislature to block tax and budget proposals.  Everyone gets that budget reform needs to reflect democracy.

But closing loopholes, while helpful, doesn’t come close to real budget reform and restoration of the representative democracy and accountability that have been eroded for decades by an initiative process that encourages both ad-hoc automatic spending formulas and paralyzing revenue limits.

The governor properly points out that the common cycles of feast and famine – both in California and elsewhere – make little sense. But the fix is not more formulas. It’s a return to a system of representative government that forces voters to make choices between good services and low taxes, and makes all politicians accountable instead of rewarding them, as the process does now, for fudging, borrowing and irresponsibility.

I don’t think Peter Schrag was given $16 million dollars to come up with that.

Of course, it wouldn’t be right to just advocate for democracy in Sacramento, because that would be too terribly “Democratic.”  It’d ruin the street cred of these sensible wise men, these moderate militants, who think that the best solution necessarily includes a little bit from the left and a little bit from the right, claiming that the real solution is just to tell lawmakers that “governing is more important than winning,” because holding hands in a circle is the $16 million dollar answer.  We actually need partisanship and a politics of contrast so voters can make real choices.  This call for bipartisan solutions only goes out when progressive ideas are flourishing.  Sacramento wasn’t “broken” when the energy market was deregulated.  It wasn’t “broken” when Prop. 13 made it impossible for the state to gather expected revenue.  It’s only “broken” when a tiny group of Yacht Party Republicans are straining to hold back the tide of legitimate government with a proper revenue structure.

And by the way, guy from California Forward who emailed me within 10 minutes of the last time I wrote about this: don’t bother.  I’ve little interest of being assimilated into the Borg.