Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The California Legislature finally passed a budget, three months late. The Democratic-controlled legislature cannot pass a budget without the concurrence of some Republicans, because the stupid constitution requires a 2/3 majority for the budget. Democrats are 6 votes (of 80) shy in the Assembly, and 2 votes (of 40) shy in the Senate. For want of those 8 Republican votes, we waited 3 months for a budget and got a total piece of legislative excrement (allow me to coin a new word: "lexcrement"). The problem: a $15 billion budget gap. That is about six weeks in Iraq. Or three years of Alaska's buget. The solution: Cut $9 billion and borrow $6 billion from future years' budgets. Way to fucking go. Republicans said "no new taxes" but would not take responsibility for the budget cuts. Democrats gave in on all kinds of budget cuts, but wouldn't give up $6 of $15 billion no matter what. Governor Steroids proposed a 1-cent sales tax increase (the most regressive tax possible) and that got nowhere. Although a Republican, Arnold couldn't get 8 Republicans to side with him on anything. He ended up being not an honest broker (the role of the governor in CA budget issues) but a third constituency that nobody wanted to please.

Now, in a hissy fit, Arnie is going to veto the budget. It's a meaningless gesture, of course, because the budget required a 2/3 vote anyway. It will be overriden within hours. But he has also threatened, out of spite, to veto most of the remaining 873 bills sitting on his desk. Democrats warn him that to do so capriciously will have consequences. The legislature can punish the Governor equally well by sending him bills he cannot sign for things he needs. And worse. The loser in this war of midgets is the people of California. (No wonder the State Supreme Court refused to move to Sacramento years ago).

After five years of Schwarzenegger, elected on a recall of the failed Davis administration, we have more debt, higher state university fees, lots of hidden "fees" instead of taxes, and state government is more broken than ever. A couple years ago, a Sacramento watcher (whose name I forget) described the budget battles in Sacramento as two kids threatening "Give me what I want or I will hold my breath until I turn blue and pass out." Then proceeding to do it. This year was even worse. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

The problem is (as we have discussed) institutional. Barring institutional fixes, however, the solution has to be with people - namely, with the governor. He (or she) alone has the megaphone and the power to rally the public, knock heads together, wheedle, cajole, and threaten legislators into breaking the logjam. A strong governor can change the contours of the debate, set the public agenda, and force sensible compromises.

Allow me to illustrate the power of political skill even in hard situations. In 1994, the Republicans took control of the CA State Senate and the State Assembly. Or rather, they should have taken control of the State Assembly, but they had only a 1 vote majority. Speaker Willie Brown (known as Wily Brown), a Democrat of 15-years' tenure in that seat, persuaded one Republican to vote for him, deadlocking the Chamber and leaving him in power. (Willie Brown's office, which he designed himself, was grander than the governor's, by the way). When that Republican was recalled by his irate constituents, Speaker Brown persuaded another Republican to accept the speakership for himself (at the expense of his party). When she fell too, another Republican patsy was found. It took a full calendar year for the Republicans to seize control of the Assembly after they had won it. When they finally got their own speaker, Chip Pringle, he served for 10 months, then the GOP lost the election and Dems have run the chamber ever since. The result of that brief interlude in 1996 was electricity deregulation. That worked well. I remember muttering to my friends at the time that if Bill Clinton had had just half as much guile and skill as Willie Brown, we would have had universal health care. Institutional problems don't make it hopeless, but they do require extraordinary people. And, as Robespierre supposedly said of the French Revolution, "We live in a time of great events, but little men." Indeed it is so. If Dianne Feinstein runs for governor, she could command attention and make changes. I support Garamendi, but I know he will have it tough with his lack of name recognition.

What happens to California now? The Governor is now a lame duck, that's for sure. He is termed out and there will be an electoral campaign starting in earnest right after Nov. 2008 for the Nov. 2010 election. Democrats have a good chance of winning. But they may not have the ability to increase their legislative margins to two-thirds, and probably won't be able confront the institutional problems that make the state increasingly ungovernable.


Raised By Republicans said...

Would Feinstein have better luck with the Republicans than Governor Muscles has had?

The Law Talking Guy said...

Feinstein could have moved public opinion to put pressure on the Republicans. She could have grabbed even national attention to the budgetary issues and framed the debate to make Republicans scramble. She also could have figured out what to offer 8 Republicans in terms of personal district bounty to make a change of heart less painful. Arnold didn't know how to do any of this. Feinstein is a Senator - she knows how to work supermajoritarian bodies AND she knows how to work the media. Poor Arnold.

I'm not a believer in the idea that government "just needs a strong leader." I do think that where institutions are blocked, sometimes good political skills can unclog them. Note that the 'strength' I am referring to here is about the strength to make compromises and work a legislature, not the Huey Long type of "my way or the highway."