Sacramento's budget stalemate is becoming a true governmental crisis. Bills and salaries are going unpaid. Public confidence in state government--already at dangerously low levels--continues to sink. Some of California's most needy citizens are suffering.
There is, of course, no excuse for breakdowns of this magnitude. But there is more than enough blame to go around. And while the Legislature will inevitably absorb most of the public's and media's condemnation, considerable blame rests with others playing the budget game and, just as important, with the rules of the game itself.
Gov. George Deukmejian, who must sign the budget, has again proven himself to be the toughest (many would say most stubborn) of negotiators. He has continued to oppose any budget containing tax increases, demanding that the state's $3.6-billion shortfall to be erased exclusively, or almost so, by budget cuts, with severe impact on many Democratic-backed programs--education, housing, health and welfare.
Understandably, Deukmejian's cuts-only approach is unacceptable to many Democrats, especially those who view the needy as a core constituency. For these Democrats to accede to Deukmejian's demands entails a far greater concession than they have requested of him.
But our state Constitution, which dictates key rules of the budget game, must also bear considerable blame for the crisis. It demands that the budget be approved by a two-thirds vote in both legislative houses. Californians may be enamored with this supposed protection against irresponsible government action. But the super-majority rule may just as easily produce giveaway and pork-barrel programs designed to draw additional support for legislators, or minority rather than majority rule, or stalemate--that is, no rule at all.
Especially in California, where parties are loose confederations rather than monolithic juggernauts, the effort to pass significant legislation of any kind is a formidable undertaking. Majorities must be built and sustained in several different committees, and in the Senate and the Assembly, and in the governor's office. Demanding that the state's most comprehensive and controversial political act be approved by a two-thirds vote is to guarantee, at best, lowest-common-denominator politics. At worst, it is an invitation to government stalemate and breakdown.
Even in good economic years, when projected revenues exceed expenditures, and when the budgetary question is what to add, the two-thirds vote requirement still makes stalemate a likely outcome. But in bad years, when revenues fall below anticipated expenditures, and when the focus is on cuts rather than additions, stalemate is almost inevitable.
The two-thirds vote requirement also favors unaccountable over accountable government. By demanding the ultimate in consensus-building, it produces the minimum in public accountability. When the 1991 budget is finally approved, almost every politician involved will be able to say--"Don't blame me. I didn't like it, but I had to vote for it." Government would be far more accountable and understandable if its actions more clearly defined who supported and who opposed an act, or, from the public's point of view, apportioned clear credit or blame.
The electorate, too, must accept some blame for the current, and recurring, budget crises. As if to express their fear of governors and government, voters continue to put the executive branch in one party's hands and the legislative branch in the other's. Many might view this checks-and-balances, power-sharing approach to government as part of the genius of our California and American systems. Our governmental processes were designed to promote limited, compromise-oriented government. And they do. But when carried to extremes, as in California's two-thirds rule, the price is often stalemate and the inability of government to adequately address critical public needs.
So while we blame our government for being unacceptably late in producing a budget, we would be wise to consider the difficulty of the task. We may not wish to praise the failure. But we should not be surprised by it.