It’s time to bite the bullet

California voters sent Sacramento a mixed and somewhat contradictory message Tuesday. But the politicians’ response should be unequivocal. They should fix the budget themselves, right now, and not dither over any pain it inflicts.

All those steamy summers of squabbling over unconstitutionally late spending plans without honestly making ends meet finally caught up with the policymakers when the electorate emphatically trashed their convoluted offering.

The one common message from diverse voter groups was that they don’t respect or trust their elected state representatives. The public isn’t buying what the politicians are selling.

Restoring public confidence so they can start to lead California in a new direction should be their first order of business.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must follow through on his pre-election doomsday threat to slash and burn if voters wound up rejecting the budget fixes, or they’ll never believe another word he says. They hardly do now, based on the election results and previous polling.

The nonpartisan Field Poll last month found the lame-duck governor suffering from record-low popularity. Only 32% of surveyed voters approved of the way he was handling his job. Fellow Republicans approved of him even less than Democrats.

The Legislature’s job approval was a stunningly abysmal 14%.

If there had been a measure on the ballot Tuesday to demote the Legislature from full-time to part-time status, it probably would have passed. In fact, a group filed a proposed initiative Wednesday to create a part-time, so-called citizen Legislature.

To begin to earn any credibility, the Legislature must pass a balanced budget by July 1, start of the new fiscal year. No months-long posturing and childish games.

And what’s to argue about? After Tuesday, it’s fantasy to think there could be enough support in the Capitol for another tax increase.

Liberal groups Wednesday were dreaming again of eliminating the two-thirds vote requirement for passage of a budget and tax hike. Good luck, but that and other needed reforms are years off if ever.

Meanwhile, Sacramento is projected to run out of cash by mid-July if the governor and Legislature don’t clean up another $21.3 billion in red ink so the state seems safe enough for investors to buy its bonds. Treasurer Bill Lockyer says a legitimate budget must be signed at least by July 1.

In staunching the bleeding, Democrats shouldn’t fret about some of their political patrons -- the public employee unions -- that opposed the ballot props and now have no right to whine when thousands more teachers and government workers are laid off. Ditto other liberal groups that will moan about Sacramento cutting an even bigger hole in the safety net for the poor, including children and the disabled.

The failed props would have provided nearly $6 billion immediately, plus, starting in 2011, $9 billion in restored school aid and $16 billion in continued higher taxes for two years. But the libs opposed the package’s linchpin, Proposition 1A, because they feared its modest spending controls.

Similarly, Republican lawmakers shouldn’t gripe when their rural districts lose firefighting camps, plus special funding for sheriffs and property tax breaks for farmers who keep their land in agriculture. As the GOP constantly reminds us, the state must live within its means. And the means exclude higher taxes.

“Stop taxing us” was the dominant public policy message from the special election.

“Voters will not raise state taxes,” insists Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races. “They do not trust the Sacramento politicians to spend the money.”

But it wasn’t a pure anti-tax message.

“Taxes was the spark,” says Patrick Dorinson, a Republican communications strategist. “It was like a room full of gunpowder. You’ve got a match and strike the gunpowder and the room goes up. The tax increase was the match.”

The right and left alike were spinning their reasons for the measures’ miserable failure. Liberals contended that many voters wanted to invest more in education and repair the safety net without being slowed by spending limits.

The propositions offered “plenty for anybody left, right or center to find objectionable,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. “I would be reluctant to draw any huge ideological conclusions. . . .

“Plenty of voters want to keep services and taxes at the levels they are, even though the math on that doesn’t quite work out.”

Yes, one could make a case that the electorate opted for the status quo that has been driving California into the abyss: no more tax hikes, no more program cuts and no spending controls. Deja vu. Hardly a revolution.

“The big message,” says Gale Kaufman, a strategist for Props 1A and 1B, “was that voters believe the budget is the Legislature’s and governor’s domain completely. They don’t want to be responsible for voting on any part of it. They want Sacramento to do it, to get it done and get it behind them.”

Never mind that California voters also are addicts of ballot-box budgeting.

Meantime, in Sacramento they were saying all the right things Wednesday.

“The reason these measures went down,” Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told me, “is that people have less money, they’re hurting and they expect us to do what they’re doing. And that is to do the best we can with what we have.”

And it should be done expeditiously, he added, “to begin changing our relationship with the voters. The deficit doesn’t get any better by waiting. In fact, it gets worse.

“I’ve got ants in my pants. I’m not going to let this linger.”

Whatever works. Move quickly and get the job behind you, senator.