Thursday, July 24, 2008


California's Budget Problem

Eastern pundits used to refer to "dipsy-doodle California." Here we are again, late in July, and the State legislature has not passed a budget for the year which began July 1. The State has used up the reserve fund that is supposed to keep payments going while the legislature wrangles about the budget. This year the legislature has been particularly recalcitrant. The money is gone. Medicaid providers will have to borrow money from banks and other institutions, to be paid back when the State finally has a budget.

Why? The budget mess is an unexpected consequence of the decision by the voters several years ago to require 2/3 votes for passing budgets and raising taxes. Local governments can't raise taxes except by a 2/3 vote of the public. The supermajority requirement was intended to make sure that the politicians didn't spend money recklessly and to prevent too rapid a growth of government at all levels. So, now we have unpaid health care providers for the most vulnerable segment of the population; now we have local governments strapped for cash because they depend on the State for some of their income. It's a classic example of people getting the kind of government they deserve, not the kind they want.

In all this mess, our charismatic Governor, Herr Schwarzenegger, has been deliberately uninvolved. He's the leading Republican in the State; he's popular and knows how to raise tons of money. You'd think he'd be trying to use his charm and his ability to raise money to influence a few of the stubborn Republicans in the legislature who refuse to approve any budget that does not make drastic cuts in many essential services. They have taken the "no new taxes" pledge. People on Medicare can do without health care for the time being. The educational system can do without a lot of things for the time being. Perhaps next year the economy will improve and the existing tax rates will bring in more money. Until then, people can just wait. Fires can burn. Policemen and other public servants can make do with less money.

Herr Schwarzenegger had his chance when he first took office after the recall election to support a change to the State constitution that would have relaxed the 2/3 vote required to a 55 percent vote in each house of the legislature. He didn't support the measure and it didn't pass. Now he has a legislature in which a stubborn minority is able to hold up the works until it gets its way. He was unwilling to support relaxing the 2/3 requirement several years ago. Today he is unwilling to use his influence on members of his party (did I forget to note that he is a Republican?) to get a reasonable budget enacted.

I can remember a time when most Republicans were reasonable, even though somewhat conservative. Before term limits were enacted, there were a few Republicans in the legislature who used their influence on other legislators of both parties to achieve reasonable compromises on legislation. These reasonable Republicans have all been termed out. Their successors are ideologues, disciples of the late Howard Jarvis and the living Grover Norquist. These intellectual giants proclaimed and still proclaim the virtues of small government and low taxes. Small government entails eliminating such services as public libraries, public hospitals, free highways, free higher education, and well-staffed police departments. Does Governor Schwarzenegger subscribe to this concept of what government ought to be?

Maybe it's time for another recall election.
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