Seldom is there anything absolute in politics--black or white, good or bad. Merely symbolic or all substantive. An example last week was the Assembly's tax dance.
While Californians were writing out checks and mailing in their 540s to beat the April 15 deadline, the Republican-led Assembly was passing Gov. Pete Wilson's bill to cut state income taxes by 15%.
It was great symbolism--and the stuff of cynicism. That bill has as much chance of passing the Legislature as Wilson has of being elected president. Indeed, there's hardly anybody in the Capitol who doesn't suspect that the governor's proposed tax cut is tied to his lingering presidential dreams.
Wilson waited until the day after the Assembly vote to disclose to a Times reporter that there's a gaping hole of at least $1.6 billion in his $61-billion budget proposal. He blamed Washington for not enacting welfare changes. Actually, he conceded later to legislative leaders, the hole probably is closer to $3 billion.
"All of those pipe dreams that I keep hearing about [legislators] spending a nonexistent surplus--they'd better awaken to reality," Wilson told The Times. There should be "no visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads."
But a tax cut is not considered a pipe dream. And it's beneficial for the GOP if voters have unrealistic visions of Republicans slashing their taxes.
Regardless of the cheap symbolism of tax cutting on tax day, however, Republicans were showing voters unmistakably what direction the Legislature would be taking if the GOP also controlled the Senate.
Most Republicans profess that cutting taxes ultimately produces more government revenue by stimulating economic growth. So their symbolism was not without substance, even if you agree with Democrats that this theory is just another pipe dream and that California's schools and jails and other clogged public facilities need the money worse than most taxpayers.
After all, in the last three decades California has dropped from fifth in the nation to 42nd in spending per school student. It has more pupils per teacher and fewer computers per classroom than any other state. As for jails, we keep increasing criminal penalties without building enough cells. Or, in the case of Los Angeles County and its vacant new lockup, government has the cells without the money to operate them.
The GOP points out that California's corporate tax rate is the highest in the West and our top personal income tax is higher than most industrial states. True, notes the nonpartisan legislative analyst, but because of low property taxes, California's overall tax burden really is only "about average."
"That income tax cut won't pass our house," vows Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). But he foresees some modest targeting of tax relief for growth businesses such as electronics and biomedical, for slumping industries like aerospace and housing and perhaps for such environmental endeavors as toxic cleanup and development of smogless cars.
"Lockyer has never failed to do what he has promised to do, and he has promised to kill this tax cut," says its author, Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga). "I'm going to take him at his word since he's not one to bluff."
Responds Lockyer: "It's always better that they don't know when you are."
On this one, he definitely is not.
What we're now seeing is the governor and the Legislature--especially the dominant Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats--beginning to grope for ways to avoid gridlock and "accomplish" something. Anything.
Thus last Thursday, Wilson called the year's first substantive meeting of the "Big Five"--himself and legislative leaders. They agreed on a novel experiment: the creation of joint conference committees to begin negotiating final compromises on ticklish topics before both houses have completed action on bills.
The Assembly tax dance, in effect, marked the opening round of the annual budget fight. And it was a lopsided victory for Republicans, not just because they passed the bill, but because they finessed Democrats and trumped their education card. Brulte agreed to a Democrat-sponsored amendment designed to assure that public schools will not be hurt by the tax cut. He was signaling compromise to Locker.
But rather than take credit for Brulte's acquiescence, Assembly Democrats withdrew the education amendment and also 15 others aimed at protecting schools and college students and denying tax cuts to the most affluent. The surprised Democrats folded, rationalizing that the more objectionable the bill, the better for them politically.
Republicans easily attained a symbol with a smidgen of substance.