Tag Archives: gridlock

‘All-In’ Strategy for Dems Could Be Ticket to Budget Reform

(An interesting idea…thoughts? – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

From today’s Beyond Chron.

It’s no longer a debate – the blame for California’s current financial crisis falls directly at the feet of the requirement that two-thirds of the state legislature must approve any budget proposal. Minority Republicans’ use of this requirement to refuse to negotiate a compromise budget, threatening vital services for the state’s most vulnerable residents in the process, reveals just how ugly things can get when the majority party finds itself handcuffed by obstructionists. Consensus has been growing for years that eliminating the two-thirds requirement represents an integral step towards creating a truly progressive California, and now rumblings can again be heard among Democratic leaders to place a repeal of the two-thirds rule on the ballot. But these rumblings all point to placing it on the 2010 ballot, when a different tactic – placing the repeal on the special election ballot next spring that will likely be necessary to pass a state budget – could be Democrats’ best chance to enact the change so desperately needed.

It’s becoming evident that California’s endless budget battle can no longer be treated, as much of the mainstream media seems to, as merely another political turf war between Democrats and Republicans. Real consequences for real people continue to mount as the impasse refuses to break.

State funded child care centers, for example, are now kicking kids out due to lack of funds caused by the budget gridlock. Child care represents an essential service for working poor people trying to support their families, and losing it could bring about dire consequences for thousands of Californians’ lives. It’s often easy to ignore what happens in Sacramento, particularly when it comes to process-oriented details that seemingly have little consequence. But right now, it’s this exact sort of detail – the two-thirds requirement in the state legislature – that is leaving working parents with no place to leave their children while they’re at their job.

As Paul Hogarth pointed out yesterday, Democrats tried to repeal the two-thirds rule back in 2004, to miserable results. Proposition 56 lost with only 34 percent of the vote, a crushing defeat that rightly leaves many anti-two-thirds folks wary of being put through the ringer again.

However, realizing that fruitless deadlock will continue until someone addresses the issue, Democratic Senate and Assembly leaders now appear ready to give it another shot. In their comments to the Los Angeles Times regarding the subject, they stressed caution in moving forward, stating they would “order up a lot of polling and focus groups before they decide whether to attempt that move,” and that it probably wouldn’t be until 2010 that the repeal would make it to the ballot.

While this strategy makes a lot of sense at first blush, it may not be the best way to pass a repeal of the two-thirds law.

The 2004 effort failed in part because voters don’t pay attention to what happens to Sacramento. Rather than understanding the consequences of the two-thirds rule, and viewing the initiative as a concrete way to improve the lives of everyday people, it seemed like an effort by legislators to grant themselves more power to tax.

To make matters worse, the ballot Prop. 56 appeared on went before voters during a similar budget squabble. Governor Schwarzenegger came out against Prop. 56, offering up instead a massive bond get the state out of debt. This quick fix passed by a large margin despite it doing nothing to solve the structural budgetary problems plaguing California.

But things have changed since 2004. Voter approval for the Governor has plummeted by almost 40 points, and his endorsement of measures on the upcoming March ballot won’t be likely to help them out. Not only that, but voters appear sick of endless half-measures for alleviating California’s deficit. Now may be the time to make the case that without repeal of the two-thirds rule, we’re relegated to an endless re-run of the same show – deadlock, borrowing, and real suffering for real people.

Because the upcoming March election will likely be entirely about the budget, it represents an excellent opportunity to draw a clear connection between the two-thirds rule and the problems plaguing the state, as well as capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s declining popularity and voter resentment at obstructionists preventing a budget from being passed.

The strategy would be simple:

• Allow Republicans to put whatever they want onto the ballot – lottery borrowing, spending caps, you name it. Democrats would only place one measure on the ballot – the two-thirds repeal – and argue that voters have a choice. They can continue to choose stopgap measures and financial trickery, or they can vote for real budget reform.

• Placing one initiative on the ballot would focus Democratic efforts and resources on one campaign, rather than spreading it thin over a variety of budget-related efforts. This could grant the fire power necessary to achieve victory.

• Ensure that voters know the real consequences caused by the budget impasse. Make the face of the campaign working people with no childcare, adults going back to community college who now can’t find classes, and the recipients of community non-profit services that must now go without.

• Point out that the special election is costing taxpayers $50 to $100 million. Argue that taxpayers may have to keep paying that tab, year after year, until reform happens.

• Finally, make sure rank and file California Democrats understand what’s happening in Sacramento. Repeal of the two-thirds rule shouldn’t be about taxes – it should be about allowing elected Democratic legislators to do their job, and demonstrating that a small group of Republicans will continue to be able to bring the state to a standstill without reform.

Rather than wasting any more time on the state’s budget when it’s clear that structural change is necessary to achieve real progress, it’s time Democrats focus on the actual problem – the two-thirds rule. Yes, this ‘all-in’ strategy for the March election is risky. But even riskier is allowing any more time to pass as Republicans, year after year, hijack the most important process our state legislators are charged with – passing a budget to fund our state.

States Dems Should Hold Strong on Budget

From today’s

Beyond Chron

Sunday’s vote on the state budget, in which every single Republican in the Assembly cast a ‘no’ vote against a proposal that would have both cut spending and raised taxes to close the current $15.2 million gap, exposed a glaring fact about the budget impasse. For state Republicans, the process has ceased to represent an effort to reach a solution. Instead, it represents an opportunity to stoke California’s anti-tax sentiments and tell constituents come election years that they ‘steadfastly opposed the Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes.’ While the State Dems must hold strong in their efforts to pass a more progressive state budget, they must simultaneously develop a simple argument targeted towards everyday voters explaining their refusal to bend to Republicans’ will.

There’s more…

Despite California’s progressive reputation, our state possesses a long history of being rabidly opposed to taxation. Proposition 13, passed in the late 70s, tapped into this wellspring and sparked a national movement still in bloom today. State Republicans in Sacramento remain determined to keep stoking the fires of the faithful.

Reading quotes from Assembly Republicans about Sunday’s vote made me feel like I’d been transported back to the apex of American fiscal conservatism, the Reagan era. Mike Villines (R-Clovis), for example, ripped a page from the Gipper’s playbook, telling the Chronicle that “what’s important now is that they [the Democrats] know we’re not willing to (vote for) taxes.”

To close the state’s $15.2 billion budget gap without raising a single tax represents an impossible task. Employing solely cuts would cause catastrophic effects to state services and anger amongst constituents across party lines. And the Republicans know it. They refuse to present a tax-free alternative to the Democrats’ solution, instead focusing on pandering to their anti-tax base and painting Democrats as fiscally irresponsible.

The state’s mainstream media seems determined to add credence to this narrative. They present the battle as one between the Governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature. In reality, because of California’s policy of requiring a 2/3 majority to pass the budget, it’s the State and Assembly Republicans who hold all the power. As long as these Republicans refuse to vote for a budget proposal, negotiations will remain at a standstill.

This leaves the Democrats with two options:

First, they can continue to bend over backwards to produce compromise budget proposals, trying to convince the public that they’re still working to solve the impasse. This involves offering up more capitulations that should be anathema to a truly progressive state Democratic Party, including creating a state spending cap that would destroy a wide array of essential services. It also does nothing to reverse the Republican narrative that the entire budget debate comes down to taxation.

Or, they can hold strong and refuse – just like the Republicans – to pass any budget that doesn’t represent their vision for California.

Holding strong seems the obvious choice. The problem remains, however, that to the average voter, Democratic control of the Senate and Assembly means the budget failing to pass will be viewed as their fault. The media will do absolutely nothing to correct this fallacy. You can try to tell folks about the 2/3 majority rule until you’re blue in the face – when something doesn’t happen in Sacramento, people will continue to blame the Democrats.

So what can the state’s progressives do? Fight fire with fire.

They can come up with a slogan, a mantra, as pithy and powerful as ‘no new taxes,’ explaining why they’re refusing to pass a budget. And they can use it as their battle cry during this year’s budget fight. The opposition has turned the debate over the budget into a proxy war over taxes, and progressives must now utilize the same strategy. Instead of reacting to accusations of being fiscally irresponsible, it’s time Democrats went on the offense.

There’s a variety of slogans to choose from, as the budget battle represents a fight to save basic services that reflect the core values of many Californians. “Respect Our Children,” for example, as a spending cap would prevent the state from being able to afford baseline levels of spending on the state’s school system. “Protect Our Workers,” as a sales tax increase would hit the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of the state’s low-income workers hard. “Grow Our Economy,” as desperately needed funding for research and development in building new sectors in the state’s economy would disappear without increases in taxes. “Real Transportation Choices,” as without new revenue, state public transportation funding will be gutted.

The list could go on. What’s important is that Democrats should cease trying to pass a compromise budget when the people they’re negotiating with obviously have no intention of compromising. They should instead focus their efforts on convincing Californians that the reason they’re refusing to capitulate is to protect and defend the interests of the state’s residents.

While further intransigence from both sides means a budget solution won’t be reached any time soon, what have the Democrats have to lose? Yes, the state will face a cornucopia of problems should the stalemate continue. But the Democratic Party must work to convince the state that it’s the Republicans’ thoughtlessness towards children, workers, the economy and the environment that’s the cause of these problems – not the Democrats’ love of taxes.

The budget shouldn’t be about taxes. It should be about people. And it’s up to the Democrats to change the terms of the debate.

Schwarzenegger Sinks to New Low

From today’s Beyond Chron.

Arnold’s executive order laying off 10,000 state employees – and slashing another 200,000 paychecks to the federal minimum wage – is not just insulting because he’s punishing people for the actions of others.  It’s that the budget crisis we’re in is largely his fault, and the Governor refuses to take responsibility.  Starting with Schwarzenegger’s first day in office when he repealed the Vehicle License Fee, Arnold has played one game of fiscal gymnastics after another – leaving us with today’s budget deficit of $17 billion.  With right-wing Republicans in the state legislature still playing their usual game of obstructionism, Arnold has shown no leadership of reining them in – and now says that state workers have to suffer.  When Newt Gingrich did this to federal employees in 1995, he paid a heavy political price for it.  Will the press let Arnold off the hook again?

Imagine you’re a nurse in a state hospital, or a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office – and your boss says you now have to work for $6.55/hour.  That’s what Arnold calls a needed stopgap measure for a state budget that is six weeks past due.  It’s easy to blame the legislature’s Republican minority – who every year refuse to pass a budget with any tax increase whatsoever, and can hold it hostage because the state requires a 2/3 majority.  But we’ve come to expect irresponsible obstructionism from these right-wingers – who still won’t say how they’ll come up with a solution.  Schwarzenegger’s supposed to be a “post-partisan” moderate Republican, and it’s his job to bring them in line.

The Governor admitted last week that laying off temporary workers and cutting everyone else’s salaries down to minimum wage won’t resolve anything.  But Arnold has nobody to blame but himself for the fiscal mess we’re in today – because for five years, he has repeatedly played a game of “borrow, borrow, borrow” to put off one budget crisis after another.  And inevitably, the chickens have come home to roost.

In 2003, on his first day in office, Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed the Vehicle License Fee.  This modest tax had been around since 1935 – where car owners paid 1.5% on the purchase of a new automobile.  Governor Earl Warren raised it to 2% in 1948, but the state temporarily lowered it in 1998 because of excess revenues (understanding that it would be restored when the state hit hard times.)  In one fell swoop in 2003, the state lost $5 billion in revenue for the first year – with increasing losses each successive years.

We already had an $11 billion deficit when Arnold repealed the so-called “car tax” – but never mind.  Schwarzenegger then placed a $15 billion bond measure on the March 2004 ballot, called it the “California Recovery Act” and convinced voters that we needed it to bring our fiscal house in order.  The trouble with bonds is that they have to be paid back with interest – and paying off one year’s deficit is now costing the state $1 billion a year.

If it had never been repealed, the Vehicle License Fee would net the state $6.5 billion this year.  Add the $1 billion we currently owe for interest on the 2004 Bond, and the Governor is single-handedly responsible for a $7.5 billion hole in this year’s budget alone – or almost half the deficit.  So what’s Arnold’s solution for this year’s budget, since he balks at raising taxes?  Another bond measure – borrowed against future lottery revenues.

When you’re already in a hole, it’s a good idea to stop digging.  “What about next year,” asked a frustrated Assemblyman Mark Leno.  “Are we going to bond against future income taxes?  Are we going to bond against future property taxes?  This is like an addict desperate for the next fix.  We need to be honest with the people of California, and admit that the state has a revenue problem.  And the way you get out of it is through taxes.”

The Democrats in the legislature have a comromise to plug the state’s $17 billion deficit – which involve a painful set of budget cuts coupled with reasonable tax increases.  $5.6 billion could be achieved by asking Californians who make more than $272,000 a year to pay an extra 1% on their state income tax (from 9 to 10%.)  This increase was originally placed in the ’60s by Governor Ronald Reagan, repealed by George Deukmeijan and then restored temporarily by Pete Wilson.  So it’s the Reagan-Wilson tax rate for the wealthy.

Another $1.1 billion could be raised by nixing a tax break that businesses use when they have a net operating loss one year.  “In a year when we’re asking the blind, disabled and elderly not to take a cost-of-living adjustment,” explained Leno, “it’s fair to also ask businesses not to benefit from an accounting allowance.”  Another $1.5 billion could be realized by temporarily lifting a fine that people who owe back taxes must pay – which would actively encourage scofflaws to pay up, bringing the state more revenue.

But Republicans in the legislature – whose votes are needed to get a 2/3 majority to pass the budget – simply refuse to acknowledge we have a revenue problem.  All 15 GOP State Senators and 31 of their 32 Assembly members have signed the infamous Grover Norquist pledge to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”  Schwarzenegger refuses to bring them in line – and now wants to punish state workers with layoffs and pay cuts.

For years, I’ve assumed that – beyond the 2/3 requirement – the culprit for this gridlock is the state’s ultra-partisan redistricting.  After the 2000 U.S. Census, the Democrats and Republicans in the legislature drew the lines in such a way that each district was virtually guaranteed to elect a member of one party or another.  The result is that Republicans who go to Sacramento are extremely conservative – and come from districts whose electorate is more likely to punish an incumbent for being “too moderate” than “too extreme.”

But that’s no longer the case.  In a recent statewide poll of registered Republican, 65% said the state legislature should pass a budget (even if it means more taxes) – whereas only 29% said “no new taxes” (even if it means gridlock.)  These G.O.P. legislators are out of touch with their own constituents – and it’s time for them to join the Democrats and support some very modest revenue measures.

Moreover, the media needs to shame Arnold for passing the buck on state employees – as opposed to all the other times they’ve let him off the hook.  People who work for the state don’t deserve that kind of abuse, and the Governor’s as bad as Newt Gingrich for taking this move.