A failure by Schwarzenegger and legislatorsPoint: Bill Bradley
Should Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have vetoed the California state budget? And what would past governors, such as Schwarzenegger's immediate predecessor, Gray Davis, have done?
If there is one big thing Schwarzenegger has definitely not solved (and there's certainly more than one), it's California's chronic budget crisis, fed in part by his first act as governor: the extraordinarily popular decision to cut the car tax. Clearly, you don't want to be in the situation where you are the first governor in California history to veto the state budget. That means the system has failed, and so have you.
But this budget? Outside the state Capitol, it's going to be hard to round up more than a handful of people who have any regard for this budget. You can sign it, which means you endorse it. Davis certainly signed budgets he didn't like. And that probably contributed to his recall, as he did the political thing of grinning awkwardly and pretending that he had not just put -- to borrow a phrase once much in the news -- lipstick on a pig.
Had Davis said, "Stop; this system is broken and I'm going to level with you all about it," he would probably have been better off -- maybe not with some legislators and permanent Capitol staffers, but probably with the people. He certainly knew very well what the problem was.
On the budget, Schwarzenegger, like Davis, is confronted by two extraordinarily stubborn opposing political factions and one bizarre legal quirk, all of which create fiscal entropy in the closed system of the Capitol.
The two factions are the ultra-government faction (principally public employee unions and other advocates for ever-expanding government), which dominates legislative Democrats; and the anti-government faction (far-right ideologues and the anti-tax lobbies), which dominates legislative Republicans. The legal quirk is the nearly unique requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget.
But that's a given.
What could Schwarzenegger -- and Davis, for that matter -- have done to get a better budget?
Aside from a huge campaign to alert and activate the public, which has a different view of things than the conservative Republicans' anti-government faction, Schwarzenegger could have gotten himself some Republican votes. Schwarzenegger had a plan to pressure Democrats to embrace at least some of his proposed budget reforms, and, to an extent, it worked. What he didn't have was the plan to win over enough Republicans to surmount the two-thirds vote threshold in both legislative houses needed to pass a budget.
Schwarzenegger has flourished when he's had strong legislative partners, such as former state Senate leader John Burton and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. He doesn't have that now. Davis was much the same way. When the state's budget crisis deepened early in this decade, I remember Sharon Davis telling me that they would be a lot better off were Willie Brown the Assembly speaker.
But in the era of term limits, strong legislative leaders are few and far between. The Democrats, as a top consultant reminded me the other day, certainly didn't go old school to shake loose Republican votes by locking down the house and staging repeated votes. Schwarzenegger should have recruited a cadre of mostly Republican legislators -- as he can already deal with the Democrats -- that he can count on in the clutch. He certainly can't count on Republican legislative leaders, who seem deathly afraid of political excommunication from the church of the far right.
But Schwarzenegger hasn't done that. Davis didn't do that, either. And given Schwarzenegger's outsized charm and ability to cajole and raise money, it's certainly in his power to do so.
But that's water under the bridge. Now Schwarzenegger has the opportunity, once again, to educate on the budget because, unless the Legislature rethinks its drink in the next few days, he's certainly going to get another crack at the chronic budget crisis next year.
Bill Bradley, a former senior advisor in presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, publishes NewWestNotes.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Finally, someone takes a standCounterpoint: Bill Boyarsky