Once again California leads the way — and it’s the state’s Democrats who’ll have to rise to the occasion.
Lost in the coverage of the Republicans’ Congressional gains on November 2 was the fact that the party won some 675 state legislative seats across the country, its best showing since 1928.
Along with several newly elected governors, the GOP snatched 20 legislative houses from the Democrats. Going into the every-ten-year redistricting cycle next year, they will fully control the process in 13 states with a total of 165 House of Representatives districts, while Democrats will control only four with 40 districts.
A favorable redistricting climate may yield more Republican seats down the road. Meanwhile, however, many of these states are facing dire budget problems and the new power of the Republicans means they will have to make choices that cause politicians to wince: slash spending or raise taxes.
Two fully “blue” states, California and New York, probably face the most serious fiscal difficulties. In California, for example, the Republicans won not a single statewide constitutional office and actually lost one legislative seat from their minority delegations. Nevertheless, there are rays of hope coming through that dark cloud.
For four decades, the Democrats have controlled the California legislature. Back when Jerry Brown was first governor in the late 1970s, he signed an executive order permitting state employee unions to engage in collective bargaining. Thus began an era of growing clout for these unions and they are now the state’s most powerful special interest. Many Democrat lawmakers owe their electoral success to the deep pockets of these unions. The result has been very generous pension plans and comfy salary increases for the union workers. The cost of these form a major part of the state’s precarious financial position.
Over the years, the only thing the Republican minority could do was to play boy-with-his-finger-in-dike over passage of the annual state budget. The constitution required a two-thirds vote of both houses for passage. Republicans had just enough members to hold up budgets to prevent balancing by way of new taxes in a state with already high ones.
This changed with the November election. A successful ballot initiative measure replaced the two-thirds vote with a simple majority. At first glance, it looked as if Democrats, who are especially averse to reducing costs, could envision quick passage of the next budget by means of new taxes and accounting gimmicks.
Yet here is the silver lining in the cloud that looked so dark for fiscal conservatives:
Although the budget may now be passed by a simple majority vote, Proposition 26 — also successful — still requires a two-thirds vote on any new taxes that are involved.
In a state where, for years, too many demands have been chasing too few dollars, the legislative majority has found it tempting to say “yes” to all of the demands. Two ways the state has managed to pay for this has been to withhold or snatch back county and city funds, on the one hand, and calling new taxes “user fees,” on the other. No more, Proposition 22 — another successful ballot measure — prevents the state from snatching local funds. And, under Prop. 26, taxes may no longer be disguised as “user fees.”
With iron-clad majorities in both houses of the legislature and all the elected statewide offices, the Democrats now have full responsibility for balancing the budget — and on time (or their pay is docked). Is this the bucket of cold water the once Golden State’s legislature has needed? It could be and if it succeeds it may be a harbinger for other spendthrift states.
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