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State GOP's future: resurgence or extinction?

Today's topic: What do Tuesday's results mean for the California GOP? Does the voters' rejection of the budget deal empower Republicans to be even less compromising, or does it encourage Democrats in Sacramento to marginalize and ignore the GOP by any means necessary?

How Republicans can be an effective check on DemocratsPoint: Tom Campbell

Voters on Tuesday said they want Sacramento to do its work. They don't want one side just to blame the other. With the Legislature in Democratic control, the Republican governor and legislators are in a position to check what would happen under single-party rule. If Republicans fulfill that role, the voters will follow them.

Sacramento calls a "cut" anything less than the expected increase over the previous year because of inflation and population growth. Republicans have long objected to this. We should insist on "household" accounting, in which a cut is when we spend less this year than last, just like at home.

However, the national recession has plunged California into real cut territory. Republicans ought to protect essential programs and work toward a compromise that includes more cuts than the Democrats would make by themselves. They should also concede to some measures that boost revenue if necessary to end a budget stalemate. Past governors -- Ronald Reagan (1971), George Deukmejian (1983) and Pete Wilson (1991) -- did just that, with support from Republican legislators.

Californians elected each of those Republicans governors because they showed they could govern.

In your Wednesday post, Dan, you mentioned a possible scheme the Democratic legislative leadership actually floated last December -- trying to pass a tax increase without a two-thirds vote, and I think they'll try it again. Last year, they started with a proposal to increase income taxes on the wealthy (never mind that about 50% of California's income tax is already paid by only 3% of Californians). They then said the gasoline tax should be cut an equal amount and claimed that the legislation was "revenue neutral" and therefore needed only a simple majority in the Legislature to pass instead of the two-thirds supermajority. Then they proposed something new: a freeway and road "user fee" equal to the amount by which the gas tax was reduced. When they try this scheme again, they'll claim like they did last time that the tax increase needs only a majority vote to pass because it's not a tax.

Republicans would be right to oppose this gimmick. Still, the popular will to put up with a such a scheme -- and possibly even the California Supreme Court's eventual ruling on its constitutionality -- may depend on how reasonable the alternative is. If the Democratic leadership were to get away with this, it will be because the Republicans have come across as entirely obstructionist. Democrats will claim they had no choice but to overcome the intransigence of the Republican legislators.

If Republicans are portrayed as the "party of no," we might see the end of our state's two-thirds rule on tax increases. Most Californians, however, see the two-thirds rule as the last line of defense against a perpetual growth in taxation that has left us today with the highest marginal personal income tax and the highest sales tax rates in the country. (Proposition 13 doesn't offset this. Yes, property tax rates are lower here than in other states, but property values are higher in California, so our median property taxes are the 10th-highest in the nation.)

Here, then, are the two routes for Republicans. They respond pragmatically to a compromise budget that includes some temporary tax increases (to me, a gas tax boost would be better than an income or sales tax increase), or they become the "party of no." Democrats might act responsibly and meet Republicans halfway by agreeing to more cuts and fewer tax increases than if they were the monopoly party, or they might overplay their hand by attempting an unconstitutional gimmick.

Republicans, however, must make the first move. If they put forth a tone of responsibility, maturity and competence, Democrats will know the gimmick can't work and will likely respond maturely themselves -- for the benefit of us all.

Tom Campbell is a former U.S. representative, state senator, state finance director and dean of UC Berkeley's business school. He has formed an exploratory committee to run for governor.

Cannibal conservativesCounterpoint: Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Tom,

I think we agree on a starting point. Republicans have a registration disadvantage. The latest data from the secretary of state indicate that about 45% of registered voters are Democrats and 31% are Republicans. Four percent belong to third parties, leaving one-fifth of California voters as independents -- and it is the independents who call the tune. Back in 1994, when Republican Pete Wilson won reelection as governor, he got 52% of the independent vote, according to the Field Poll. Four years later when Gray Davis won, he got 53% of those voters. As the independents go, so goes the election. Despite the Democratic tilt in California, centrist Republicans can win, as you say, by focusing on the independents and emphasizing competence, pragmatism and ability.

But there is a problem. Recently, the Sacramento Bee published a list of the state's 10 most Democratic and most Republican cities (greater than 5,000 in population). You would not be surprised by the list. The Democratic cities are concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area and in parts of Southern California with large minority populations. The top Republican cities are mainly in Orange County, Riverside and wealthy areas of Southern California.

However, Republican voters typically account for 5% to 10% of voters in the extremely Democratic cities. But Democrats account for 20% to 25% of voters in the extremely Republican cities. As long as we have partisan primaries, Democrats and Republicans can stick to appealing only to their party base. Yet these numbers suggest that even in heavily Republican districts, a GOP who sticks to his or her base is ignoring a lot of voters from the other side. Democrats who stick to their base in heavily Democratic districts are ignoring a smaller group.

As part of the budget deal last February, Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria got the Legislature to put on the 2010 ballot a proposition to create nonpartisan primaries. If voters approve that change, parties that eschew centrist, pragmatic candidates are at risk in almost all districts, but the risk is greater for Republicans.

On the flip side, nonpartisan primaries open the door to centrist Republicans. Consider Republican Richard Riordan, who won two terms through the nonpartisan route as mayor of heavily Democratic Los Angeles. But Riordan failed to win his bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2002, running in a partisan primary. For that matter, the 2003 recall was effectively a nonpartisan primary, and it put centrist Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in office. It is not clear that Schwarzenegger, despite his celebrity status, could have won in a conventional Republican primary, given his views on social issues.

Right now, however, the GOP seems bent on punishing Maldonado, Schwarzenegger and any elected Republican who will deal with Democrats. Precisely because of such cooperation, the Republican leadership in the state Senate was replaced with hard-liners during the budget negotiations. If that behavior continues, Tom, California will become a one-party state, and that party won't be the GOP.

Daniel J.B. Mitchell is professor emeritus at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management and School of Public Affairs.

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