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Can Anyone in Sacramento Put California Back Together Again? : Budget: The guiding principle in the Legislature is 'I want mine and screw you.' Wilson wasn't prepared for Republicans with long knives.

June 30, 1991|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School

The budget process in Sacramento has become Balkanized, the inevitable product of a factionalized Legislature. Loosely led alliances of individual entrepreneurs make compromise difficult. The passage of term limits hasn't made it easier.

It was about a decade ago that political analyst Kevin Phillips predicted a "new political geography of localism and neighborhoods; the substitution of causes for political parties; the narrowing of loyalties; the fragmentation of government; the twilight of authority." He called it the Balkanization of America.

There are lawmakers in Sacramento who have worked to rise above principle and end the budget chaos. But others have adopted a punitive attitude toward an electorate that short-circuited their political careers with Proposition 140.

"Reward your friends and punish your enemies" has always been a legislative norm. It has become this year's shibboleth. Teachers and public-employee unions threaten budget commitments by Democratic legislative leaders. Gov. Pete Wilson targets the board of directors of the California Public Employees Retirement System's (CalPERS), whose pro-stockholder tilt makes big business uneasy.

Budget battles have been fought before, of course, but never have circumstances been so extreme--and that, in turn, has evoked extreme responses.

Gov. George Deukmejian abrogated governance. Legislators and special interests made quiet deals that benefited both--the public be damned. Now California has a governor determined to use the budget to fashion a "common good." By inserting himself into the middle of negotiations, Wilson has forced deal-making out of the lobbies of the legislative chambers and into the media. That has changed the budget dynamic.

Never have so few said to so many, so publicly: "I want mine and screw you." That attitude has dominated every issue that has flared up, threatening budget deals cut by the governor and the legislative leadership.

There is no better illustration than the controversy surrounding CalPERS. What began as an arcane shift of funds escalated into near civil war, pitting taxpayers against retirees against unions against businesses against stockholders--and politicians against politicians--in a fight over money and power, rewards and punishments.

Every recent budget has provoked fights over support for schools and welfare payments for the poor and elderly. But never before have Democrats had to choose, with such finality, among these key constituencies--each competing for limited state dollars. The California Teachers Assn. didn't blink when demanding its 40% share of budget funding, guaranteed by Prop. 98, in the face of historic welfare cuts that could harm the families of school children.

Then there is the fight over taxes. It has not only been a debate over whether new levies will--or should--hurt the poor and middle class more than the rich. It has gone beyond pitting the haves against the have-nots.

From Sacramento to Washington, everyone is demanding "tax equity." Politically, its operative definition is "Not me!" When threats of new levies float through the Capitol, everybody with any political wherewithal mobilizes to defend turf.

As Jess Unruh used to say, "If I had killed all my enemies yesterday, I'd have no friends today."

Well, what happens to government when the divisiveness of politics requires you to kill your friends?

That's a question for Wilson and his GOP colleagues. This year's budget battle mirrors another fight--the one between moderates and conservatives for the soul of the California Republican Party.

From the mid-'60s, the right wing directed the party apparatus. Since the election of a cadre of "Prop. 13 babies" in 1978, arch-conservatives have dominated the Assembly Republican caucus, steering it farther and farther away from legislative accommodation.

Assembly Republicans gained inordinate control over fiscal policy with the election of no-new-taxes soul mate Deukmejian as governor. But as their budget clout increased, right-wing legislators, elected from safely gerrymandered districts, grew less reflective of Republican voters and of the state whose policy agenda they controlled.

Statewide--and national--elections are won in the political center. Wilson is moving to take his party there. To do that, he needs to take back control of the budget process and to reshape the party's legislative caucus in his image.

Wilson administration goals may have suffered, if only temporarily, from some internal disarray, too. The death of Otto Bos, the governor's director of communications and keeper of the administration's theme, clearly threw the governor off-stride. Wilson was "clumsy" on a few things, said one Democrat.

Inserting his plan to restructure the CalPERS board into the budget negotiations only served to build opposition and stall his budget momentum. And legislators groused that Wilson did not begin to twist arms on the budget early enough in the game.

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