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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

State Budget Is Test for O.C. Legislators

July 07, 2002|STEVEN B. FRATES | Steven B. Frates is a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

The state budget impasse has generated substantial political heat but very little statesmanship light. With much posturing and pontificating, the Legislature is conjuring up a "balanced" budget. In reality, any budget passed by the Legislature and approved by the governor at the start of this fiscal year will be little more than a sham.

Nevertheless, the Legislature and the governor are engaged in an elaborate ritual dance to produce a "balanced" budget. To find a political consensus, the governor desperately will try to persuade one or two Republican legislators to go along with the proposed Democratic budget.

In such a closely balanced and tense political situation, there is a unique opportunity for innovative maneuvering. A handful of legislators from either or both parties could wield enormous influence. One need only recall the powerful effect of the so-called "gang of five," moderate Democratic legislators who controlled the budget process during the budget stalemates of the early 1990s.

Orange County taxpayers, cities, schools and special districts get a raw deal from Sacramento. And Orange County is not alone in this respect. Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Imperial and Los Angeles counties get much less money per capita in state subventions (state payments to local governments) than San Francisco County and some other Bay Area counties.

This presents a unique opportunity for members of the Orange County delegation, both Democrat and Republican, to work together with their colleagues representing the rest of Southern California to remedy this gross inequity. The question is whether any member of the Orange County delegation has the requisite political skill and leadership ability.

Unfortunately, based on past performance, the Orange County delegation doesn't seem up to the task. This is unfortunate, because with just a modicum of political skill Orange County legislators could work closely with other Southern California legislators to make sure that Southern Californians don't bear the brunt of any bad deals.

Senate Majority Leader John Burton, who ably represents San Francisco, is always keen to raise taxes. The good senator from San Francisco is especially enthusiastic about raising taxes and fees that smack suburban Californians with particular ferocity. Orange County residents, to note just one example, pay more in vehicle license fees than San Franciscans. Maybe it is time for the Orange County delegation to look out for its constituents.

Of course, any "balanced budget" passed this summer is going to be balanced in name only. The governor and incumbent legislators are justifiably uncomfortable with the prospect of facing irate voters in November. A long, messy and inconclusive budget process is not something that will help incumbents on election day. Hence, this "summer budget" will be balanced by a combination of borrowings from various restricted funds, accounting gimmicks and cleverly disguised tax increases--all covered with a thick gloss of unrealistically optimistic economic projections.

The budgetary rubber will probably meet the proverbial road shortly after election day. Only then will legislators start to be really candid about how the state's finances are going to be arranged.

Given this state of affairs, the Orange County legislative delegation actually has two opportunities to accomplish something for its constituents. The first opportunity is right now. If the Orange County legislative delegation were capable and competent, its members could exercise considerable leverage during the budget deliberations. Based on their track record, this does not seem likely to happen.

Even if they continue their virtually unmatched record of fiscal and political ineptitude, the Orange County legislative delegation could get another chance to do something constructive when hard decisions will be made in November. Their hand would be strengthened, of course, if they push to protect their constituents during the current negotiations.

Sadly, year after year, the cities, schools and citizens of Orange County continue to get a raw deal from the state. And, year after year, the Orange County legislative delegation continues to bring home the bacon--to San Francisco.

It would take many years of greater state subventions to Orange County and reduced subventions to San Francisco County to achieve an equitable balance of state funding for Orange County, yet Orange County legislators do nothing about the situation.

Perhaps in the interests of truth in advertising, both incumbent Democratic and Republican legislators from Orange County could each adopt a campaign slogan that accurately reflects their record in Sacramento in terms of representing their constituents during the state budget process. A short-and-sweet slogan that fully captures their legislative record: "Pay more, get less."

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