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Placing Blame for the Budget Bust: Governor? Assembly? System? Who? : Funding: Why did it take so long? Part gubernatorial intransigence, part Assembly irresponsibility. And a major lack of leadership.

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School</i>

In the end, it wasn’t dollars; it was personalities. That is the proper epitaph for this year’s record state budget stalemate.

When the deadlock finally broke, 28 days into the new fiscal year, California’s governor and legislators buried the hatchet in a $55 billion-dollar funding program that differed little from proposals offered weeks before.

(Gov. George Deukmejian performed a solo hatchet act on Tuesday when he signed the budget, using his line-item veto to cut education and social-service programs and slashing the budget of his nemesis, schools chief Bill Honig.)

So why did it take so long?

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Ask Deukmejian. Much has been written of his ideological intransigence, his stubborn refusal to deal, his inability or unwillingness to provide even a modicum of partisan leadership--let alone statesmanship.

Remember last year? Deukmejian proffered an olive branch to California’s Democratic legislators and then, with a budget that shorted health and welfare programs, told them what to do with it.

This year, he didn’t even proffer; he just shoved and walked away. Until his precious legacy of fiscal prudence seemed nearly unsalvageable. Until the state’s credit rating was threatened. Until he exacted as tribute the surrender of legislative Democrats over a controversial bill to put a prison in downtown Los Angeles. Then he finally began, as one cynic observed, “blasting kneecaps,” to round up Republican votes for the package.

Why did it take so long? Ask those legislators who simply quit the Capitol for vacations in the midst of the struggle. Those who admitted they didn’t take the looming budget crisis “seriously enough,” soon enough.

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How would legislators know how serious the crisis was?

Sure, nursing homes couldn’t pay their bills. Trauma centers have been closing for years. President Bush had already signaled the need for new taxes.

But many legislators have become so insulated, so unaccountable, so out-of-touch politically, that--even in an election year--they remain clueless.

And they remain non-responsive--until powerful interest groups, whose ox is being gored or whose payrolls are not being met, scream for satisfaction.

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Other legislators, like the governor, have become so fixated on their own world view that they could cavalierly hold the budget hostage to it--with impunity. As one observer put it, “A lot of the lack of movement (on the budget) comes from an incredibly safe seat that is designed for you . . . . If the majority of the seats in both houses were truly contested races . . . would they have performed this way?”

Probably not--if their constituencies cared. But another reality is that passing the budget has traditionally meant little to anybody whose paycheck doesn’t depend on it. So politicians seldom hear from most Californians at all.

Why should legislators have grasped the seriousness sooner? A “cry wolf” syndrome has infected the Legislature since 1972, when California imposed deadlines to staunch the last-minute flow of bills. Year after year those deadlines have been evaded. But the Capitol dome hasn’t come crashing down. No legislator has gotten the boot for missing a budget deadline.

When political gridlock finally choked the Capitol, voters--and legislators--simply turned to the initiative process, leaving the governor and Legislature to languish in their political sandbox.

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That was the genesis of “ballot-box budgeting,” which begat Proposition 98, guaranteeing 40% of the state’s revenues for schools. And the brouhaha over earmarked funds became a major obstacle to budget compromise.

Why did it take so long? Ask the courts. They forced the state to pay mounting health and welfare bills. Ironically, that action helped keep legislators politically insulated, and extended Sacramento’s “foolin’ around” time.

Ask the Legislature’s leadership. The budget suffered from an absence of political direction--a void not limited to the governor’s office.

Credit must be given to the state Senate for behaving like adults and passing a bipartisan budget before the deadlock became unconscionable. Democratic Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti of Los Angeles and Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno exerted real leadership; they made hard political choices and brought their caucuses along with them.

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But Assembly behavior during the budget debate reached the level of a barnyard cockfight. The prolonged and fractious budget battle showed that Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco has little control of his house. As is his style, he worked primarily to keep his members happy--even if it meant approving vacations when crucial votes might be needed.

If Assembly Democrats were divided, the GOP caucus was rent asunder. One faction, led by ultraconservative Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), appeared, in the words of one participant, “out to blow up anything and everything.” Another, led by former GOP leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), refused to go along with the Republican plan to cut Proposition 98 funds.

Fighting to keep control of his caucus, Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra was nearly invisible during the intermittent summit meetings between Deukmejian and legislative leaders.

There’s some feeling that the election of a new governor next November will change the dynamics of the process--for the better. Neither Democratic nominee Dianne Feinstein nor Republican Pete Wilson come across as rigid or as inflexible on budgetary issues as “the Iron Deuk.”

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A Democratic governor should be far more supportive of Democratic legislators than Deukmejian has been. And the betting is that Wilson would provide the kind of activist party leadership that Deukmejian shunned. Maybe. But, unless the makeup of the obstreperous Assembly Republican caucus changes in the next election (a major long shot), switching governors won’t guarantee compromise.

Currently, a two-thirds vote is required to pass a budget. That gives the minority the power to block any spending plan. Reformers argue that the voting requirement should be reduced to a simple majority. But if factional war continues to rage in the Assembly, even that might prove difficult to muster.

So it took a long time for Deukmejian to forge his legacy. He leaves no general tax increase, but neither has he bequeathed an honest, long-term solution to California’s budget woes. Once again, the inevitable crunch has only been postponed, by paper shuffling and patchwork.

Despite efforts at leadership by individual senators and Assembly members, the budget antics over the past months may fuel support for term-limitation proposals on the November ballot. As unresponsive as legislators have been to the plight of the powerless victims of fiscal retrenchment, will limiting politicians’ ability to stay in office make them any more responsive? What’s the payoff?

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It is time to confront the brutal reality that the state’s problems are systemic. No quick fix or snappy gimmick is going to get us out of this mind-boggling mess. The ills of California won’t be cured by ignoring them or blithely waving the magic wand of the initiative and wishing government to go away.

The solution? It begins with leadership. It entails a commitment to the public good and to allocating the resources necessary to achieve it. And that goes well beyond the political maneuvering that has dominated the Sacramento scene.

Why was the fight to pass a state budget so protracted and so ugly?

Could it be not only because it bruised legislative egos and soured a gubernatorial legacy, but because, when the battle ended, the myth of “the Golden State” was dead?

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That hurts. Nobody wins. Where do we go from here?


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