Opinion

Was Arnold right to terminate the budget?

PoliticsBudgets and BudgetingState Income TaxCitizens Initiative and RecallState BudgetsElectionsTaxation

Today's question: Was Schwarzenegger right to veto the budget? Has the governor done anything different from the way Gray Davis handled or would handle the budget? Previously, Bradley and Boyarsky discussed Schwarzenegger's promise to never raise taxes and whether California is better off after the 2003 recall election.

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 williambradley@earthlink.net.

Finally, someone takes a standCounterpoint: Bill Boyarsky

Congratulations to Schwarzenegger for standing up for fiscal sanity.

Like Wall Street, California has existed for years on shaky borrowing and questionable bookkeeping, figuring the day of reckoning would never come. The day has arrived with Schwarzenegger's veto of the phony budget the Legislature sent him. And, as in the case of Wall Street, the reckoning day will reach deep into the lives of people far from Sacramento, the center of the action. Without approval of a budget, thousands of healthcare clinics, day-care centers and schools are being denied the state funds they need.

The proposed budget would hurt millions more. It would raise money by forcing businesses and individuals to pay more of this year's taxes earlier, taking money away from Californians as jobs and investments are declining. It would require a 10% increase in this year's state income tax withholding from paychecks, an early payment on taxes due next year. In other words, as people are being squeezed by an unprecedented financial crisis, the Legislature is demanding what amounts to a big increase in withholding taxes this year -- just in time for Christmas. As Schwarzenegger told reporters on Tuesday, the Legislature's budget "uses taxpayers as an ATM machine" and "continues to borrow for the future."

With his blunt action, Schwarzenegger hopefully has forced legislators to act, especially if he carries out his threat to veto their bills, some of which are totally useless. By standing up to state lawmakers, Schwarzenegger has focused the attention on who must take the blame for the fiasco.

By cobbling together this budget in secret, inexperienced staff members and legislators came up with a plan that never would have survived public scrutiny. Think of the reaction if there had been hearings, news stories, talk-show yelling and statewide debate on a proposal to increase, even temporarily, income tax withholding at a time when Californians need every penny they earn.

By pledging to veto the budget, Schwarzenegger has given notice to state lawmakers that they must begin reform now. He wants them to go back to work, make some hard decisions on cuts, set aside reserves and protect the taxpayers. The state would still be in a hole, but it wouldn't be as deep. The Democratic legislative leaders also agree on the need for reform. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass wrote recently, "We will not give up our fight to restore sanity to the budget process by reforming the 2/3 vote, modernizing the revenue system and bringing stability to the process."

The trouble with the legislators is that they wanted to kick the problem down the road to the next year and the next year and the next. Schwarzenegger has told them to begin the process now -- this week.

Bill, I agree with you that Schwarzenegger has the ability and the power to get the Legislature to act.

Bill Boyarsky, a writer for Truthdig and LA Observed, is the author of "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics." He was a political reporter, columnist and editor for The Times.

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