Thursday, January 01, 2009


A Failure of Democracy

I have two friends that I call "H." One is Harry and one is Harold. Yesterday I had an animated discussion with H (I won't say which one) about the current budget problem in California. The Governor and the Democrats in the Legislature agree that a solution to the problem must involve a combination of program cut-backs and tax increases. H disagrees. He, along with the Republicans in the Legislature, assert that the problem can be easily solved without tax increases if only the unnecessary programs could be eliminated. State spending should be restricted to providing only necessary services.

We didn't get to specifics as to which services and programs are not necessary.

I argued that, because we don't have Thomas Jefferson's angels to make decisions for us, we have to use our regular democratic processes to determine what's necessary and what isn't. It turns out that some blocs or pressure groups have more influence on legislation than others. If the bloc or group of which you are a member doesn't have much influence, then programs and services that benefit you are "unnecessary" and will be cut or eliminated. Services and programs that benefit blocs or pressure groups with influence are "necessary" and will be continued.

The trouble remains that even after the programs and services that benefit those groups and blocs that lack political influence are scaled back or abolished, the remaining programs and services still exceed the income from taxes. For years the State has been able to borrow money to make up the difference between tax revenue and "necessary" expenditures.

The present stand-off in the budget is made possible by the arcane 2/3 vote required for the Legislature to enact a budget or a tax increase. The process is blocked by the Republicans who have greater than a 1/3 representation in each House of the Legislature. They have determined that, no matter what, the existing tax revenue is enough and that all programs and services provided by the State must fit into this available money. They have not, however, specified which programs and services they think ought to be eliminated.

The Governor, himself a Republican, thinks that the solution is to elect a more open-minded group of Republicans to the Legislature. He has sponsored a plan to have legislative district boundaries determined by a commission rather than by the Legislature itself. The Legislature's habit of drawing boundaries to create safe districts for incumbents allows the incumbents the security to take extreme positions about taxes and budgets. He believes that if more of the districts were competitive, a group of legislators would be elected that are more willing to compromise. The redistricting plan won't take effect until after the census in 2010. The Governor has no plan for what to do in the meantime about the die-hard Republicans in the Legislature today.

Mr. Schwarzenegger had a chance to head off these recurring budget impasses shortly after he became Governor in the Recall Election in 2003. Later that year there was an election with several ballot measures that he favored. In addition, there was a measure on the ballot to change the required vote for budgets and taxes from 2/3 to 11/20. He refused to support the measure and it was defeated, along with several measures that he favored.

We have interesting and intractable problems in California. They are much more interesting than the problem of having an unpopular Governor who is caught trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat.

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