When the Central Valley sun sears legislators' brains, they do the Dance of Death.
The ritual has been performed almost every summer in recent years by politicians trying to concoct a state budget.
A legislative strategist once explained the Dance of Death like this: "Everybody dances around the fire. They throw stuff at us. We throw stuff at them. Everybody falls over dead and we start all over."
The present dance has been going on for more than a week. Fortunately for the performers, few people have been watching. But they'll start to now that the legislative prancing is about to result in delayed payments to many private contractors who sell goods and services to the state.
"That will pose some problems, you bet," concedes Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox of Sacramento County, whose party is blocking passage of the budget.
This is the 12th time in the last 15 years that the lawmakers--and the governor--have broken the law by failing to meet a July 1 constitutional deadline for enactment of a state budget. There's no punishment except for the political punishment that comes from looking inept.
I've always suspected--and polls tend to confirm this--that people are less concerned about what's in a budget than whether the politicians are capable of getting their work done on time.
There are two ingrained problems here.
One is the nutty two-thirds vote requirement for passage of a budget. It permits the minority party--in this case, one Republican in the Senate, four in the Assembly--to hold a budget hostage. It's undemocratic because the majority is denied an opportunity to rule. (Democrats hold 26 of 40 seats in the Senate, 50 of 80 in the Assembly, plus the governor's office.)
The two-thirds budget vote was the brainchild of do-gooders 68 years ago. No other state has copied us. We stand alone in our lunacy.
The other problem, frankly, is central air conditioning. Back in the sweaty era of ceiling and desk fans, lawmakers passed the budget on time and escaped Sacramento's oven. These summers, they're much too comfortable inside that Capitol.
It's difficult not to trivialize this little scuffle. We're asked to take seriously a fight over a sales tax of one-quarter of one cent. That's 25 cents on a $100 fancy dinner out, $2.50 on a $1,000 refrigerator, $50 on a $20,000 car.
They're talking about an average California sales tax--state and local--of about 8 cents rather than 7.75 cents. And for that they're holding up a $101-billion budget for schools, highways, prisons, health care, parks . . .
What's more, it's a stretch to call what's being proposed a tax increase. It's more accurately the suspension of a temporary tax cut.
Here's the deal: Ten years ago, to help patch a hellacious budget deficit, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic Legislature raised the sales tax a quarter-cent. But they agreed that whenever the budget surplus exceeded 4% for two straight years, the quarter-cent hike would be suspended--then toggled back on when the reserve shrank again.
The tax was suspended for the first time this year. But the economic boom now is off and a recession may loom. So the quarter-cent tax is supposed to toggle back on next January.
Tax increase, Republicans are screaming.
"Republicans are locking down. Tax increases they do not like," says Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.
But this is so minuscule! "A tax increase is a tax increase."
There's unity on this. "Our caucus is locked down on the sales tax issue," echoes Assemblyman Cox.
Republicans sense a good political issue. They already can hear the party radio ads next January telling listeners that Democrats just raised their taxes.
"One way or the other Republicans win," Brulte says. "Either we kill the sales tax increase or voters will be reminded that Democrats raised it."
In their Dance of Death, GOP politicians must be hearing a public clamor about taxes that the rest of us aren't.
Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Gray Davis aren't budging. That quarter-cent sales tax will raise a needed $600 million this fiscal year, they argue.
Get the money, Republicans respond, by eliminating local "pork" projects and "phantom" state jobs that are vacant. That's not enough, Democrats answer; they'd also have to cut school and health programs.
They throw stuff at us. We throw stuff at them . . .
Everybody needs to change their dance step.
Maybe also turn off the air conditioning. Save electricity and pass a budget.