State Budget Battle Sets a New Low in Loggerheads

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe directs the Study of State Legislative Leadership at the Institute of Politics and Government at USC.

Over the years, the California budget debate has become not so much a clash of ideas over which policies are good for--or harmful to--the state, but a clash of personalities and political agendas.

In 1980, the budget passed 16 days late. A potential gubernatorial candidate was accused of holding the budget hostage to gain media exposure. The crisis ended when his fellow Republicans became nervous about missing the Republican National Convention. In 1983, the budget was stalled 19 days, while Democrats tried to block a special election on a Republican reapportionment initiative.

This year, the constitutional deadline for passing the state budget came and went in a cloud of mean-spirited threats, personal insults, partisan machinations and lobbyists' manipulations.

The Republican governor and Democratic legislators are now at loggerheads about numbers and focus of a $41.4-billion budget. The impasse in the Assembly--the Senate managed to pass a budget bill Tuesday--is being framed as a debate over the implementation of state spending limits approved by voters in 1979, under the Gann Initiative. Gov. George Deukmejian and legislative Republicans insist that $700 million in state revenues collected above the spending limitation must be returned to California taxpayers in the form of a tax rebate. Democrats want to use the money to increase education funding. They argue that such a shift is constitutional.

The mechanism of compromise that is the heart of the legislative process has broken down and the Gann limits are a stalking horse for larger problems. Amid the din, the bill's author complained that legislators were "letting those bloody lobbyists write the budget for them." Why did this most important policy debate turn into an orgy of mudslinging and mayhem? Where will the deadlock lead? First, we need to know that there are legislators working hard to create good policy. But they are overshadowed by a more visible and uncompromising governor and legislative leadership. And the arduous detail work and negotiations aren't as colorful or as comprehensible to the media or the public as the slugfest in the main arena.

Second, let's recognize that the game of political chicken is not isolated to California. It is being played at the federal level, where Democrats moved to force the President to choose between higher taxes and a frozen defense budget, while the President, attacking Democrats as "reckless spendthrifts," announced that "any tax bill that makes it into the Oval Office won't make it out alive."

In Sacramento, as in Washington, rancor and avoidance of hard policy choices have become systemic. It is part of an unending game of low-level politics centered around ego and elections.

Deukmejian foes have attacked him as as "a stubborn, recalcitrant governor who can't see the future beyond the end of his nose." Some have likened his leadership style to early Ronald Reagan--who continually engaged in tests of will with his Democratic Legislature.

Both men appear to be misreading public sentiment on fiscal versus social issues. Nationally, polls indicate that people are willing to pay more for social services--but not for defense.

In California, there are clear indications that Prop. 13 fever has subsided. The California Taxpayers Assn. surveyed 125 elections held to determine whether Gann spending limits could be raised; in 90 of them, voters approved lifting the limit. And a recent poll indicates that a large majority of Southern Californians support spending the $700 million for education.

Still, Deukmejian appears to have the Prop. 13 mentality locked in. So do Republican legislators. Many of them won election as "Prop. 13 babies"; they owe their political careers to the "revolt" against high taxes and government spending.

Politically it doesn't hurt the Republicans when their actions threaten traditionally Democratic constituencies--such as unemployed workers and welfare recipients, whose payments will be withheld if the fiscal year begins without a budget.

The Democrats, too, have political capital invested in the budget debate. The issue of education funding helped the Democrats capture a recent special election for the state Senate, and they are not about to let it go; they can use the highly publicized budget fight to position themselves against the Republicans in 1988. But the election that dominates the budget debate isn't until 1990. We are witnessing the opening salvos of the next bloody battle over reapportionment.

Whichever political party controls the California Legislature after the 1990 election controls reapportionment and can shape districts favorable to its incumbents. That guarantees the vast fund-raising apparatus that results from owning the legislative majority and setting the legislative agenda.

The budget debate also signals the preliminaries for the 1990 gubernatorial contest. The battle between State Superintendent of Instruction Bill Honig and Deukmejian over the direction of education in this state is Round No. 1. By beating up on Honig, Deukmejian can weaken a potential Democratic challenger early. And the Democrats and Honig hope to wound Deukmejian in anticipation of a possible third-term candidacy.

Today almost everything in Sacramento is being done with an eye to 1990 and political survival. This adds to the image of our state's leaders as self-interested political creatures concerned with maintaining their own power over meeting the needs of the people they are supposed to represent. Once again, there is a perception that, in the California Legislature, partisanship and political advantage come well ahead of the public interest--despite Speaker Willie Brown's continual protestations that policy is not for sale. There's also the perception of a governor who won't play unless he holds all the marbles. That's kid stuff, not the kind of leadership necessary for governing successfully.

Leadership requires taking risks, defining priorities and having the courage to act upon them. Neither Deukmejian's proposal for a tax rebate "check-off" system nor the Democrats' suggestion of a full-scale election to determine the use of surplus funds offer leadership. Neither plan satisfies the state's fiscal needs. They are low-risk political ploys that underscore Sacramento's inability--or unwillingness--to wrestle with controversial policy decisions.

The basic question is whether or not California can muster the political leadership, the political will, to maintain the quality of life in this state. If Californians don't demand a response before 1990, it may never be answered.

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