California Democrats have dominated the state’s legislature for four decades, and for years, backed by an amen chorus of newspaper editorialists, they have longed for the ability to pass state budgets by a simple majority. The long-standing two-thirds vote requirement meant they always had to make concessions to get a few Republican votes. Last November, however, the voters passed a ballot measure to give them what they wanted. It also gave them something they didn’t want: a requirement that they pass a balanced budget by June 15 or they wouldn’t get paid until they did.
They presented a sort-of balanced budget on time, employing the usual tricks of borrowing from off-budget funds, kicking some costs down the road, proposing bonds for others. Alas for them, the state controller, himself a Democrat, ruled that they had provided for only $87.9 billion in revenue to cover costs of $89.75 billion. Controller John Chiang intoned, “The numbers simple did not add up, and the legislature will forfeit their pay until a balanced budget is sent to the Governor.” (Sidebar: Governor Jerry Brown also vetoed that budget.)
The legislative Democrats customarily hate to discuss cutting spending. Every budget cut brings out wheelchairs, picket signs, angry teachers and prison guards and every other special interest that needs ready access to the state’s treasure. Public employee unions are easily the largest, most influential special interest group in the state and they claim a large share of the hearts — and pocketbooks — of the Democratic caucus in Sacramento.
Brown saw a solution to much of the deficit problem: call a special election so the voters could decide to extend certain temporary taxes set to expire on July 1. He would tell one and all that if they turned down the tax extension, various drastic cuts would be made to programs. He reasoned that the voters, forewarned, couldn’t blame the Democratic Party if they voted down the taxes.
It didn’t work out that way. The practical deadline for creating such an election has long since passed (the Republican caucus was solidly against it). Now, some Democrats are talking about creating “bridge” taxes to extend the ones about to expire, but the voters would have to ratify them in the November election. If they didn’t (and there is a very good chance they would not), there would be a mess to untangle. And several legal experts say the “bridge” taxes could only be collected after the voters approved them, in any case. If so, the “bridge” taxes wouldn’t do the Dems any good on July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
The Republicans’ position is now that they will go along with a November election of this type, but only in exchange for specific public employee pension reform, probably a spending cap and certainly no temporary “bridge” taxes.
The beauty of the no-budget-no-pay rule is that many of these professional politicians need the money. Their work, such as it is, is entirely in the legislature. The answer is simple, though it’s not easy for the Democrats who are used to years of spending as if there were no tomorrow. Tomorrow is here. If they will come out from behind their rock and face the hard place; that is the need for pension reform and a spending cap, they may well get the Republican votes they need to pass a budget by July 1, in which case skinflint John Chiang will allow paychecks to go out to them again.