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Indecent Exposure

July 23, 2003

California's Legislature never seems to run out of inventive new ways to look bad in the eyes of voters.

Democrats, it appears, will soon bow to anti-tax Republicans and pass a state budget that avoids tax increases by making deeper cuts and pushing debt over to future years. That gloomy prospect is what prompted 11 liberal Assembly Democrats to discuss Monday whether to try to kill or delay the deal and precipitate a real budget crisis. The idea was to show people what great pain would ensue and heap blame on the GOP. A terrible idea, known to one and all because an open microphone allowed the huddle to be broadcast all over the Capitol. A longer budget delay, they said, might also help a Democratic-backed ballot initiative that would allow a budget to be passed by 55% of the Legislature instead of the current two-thirds.

Politicians are by nature tactical creatures, but hurting thousands of people to make a political point is completely off the tracks. Infuriating Democrats, Republicans gleefully distributed transcripts, but they should dampen their gloating. Does anyone believe their private discussions are much different, or that they don't include discussion of, say, how the budget disaster is a big boost in their efforts to recall Gov. Gray Davis? Their mulish stand against any tax increase is also why the state now is in its 23rd day without a budget. The two-thirds vote requirement is what has permitted them to defeat at least three versions of a 2003-04 budget and launch state government into a slow shutdown.

The Democrats' conversation was certainly raw and disrespectful. A voice identified as that of Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) said, "Some of us are thinking that maybe people should see the pain up close and personal, right now," rather than put it off until next year when lawmakers are up for reelection.

However, the group was right in saying that caving in to the Republican demand for "solving" the $38-billion budget crisis without any sort of tax increase will just slow the train wreck. The resulting debt will, at best, dampen the state's economic recovery, delay such things as bridge repairs and state park rehabilitation and restrict education and health budgets for years.

The state is already stuck with a $10.7-billion deficit left over from the last fiscal year. Back then, much of the problem could have been solved with cuts alone, but both parties ducked. Now the shortfall is too vast to solve with cuts and it is both cowardly and damaging to pass on tens of billions of dollars in complex debt to the future.

The Democrats who plotted political gain from the crisis owe Californians an apology. But the damage done by a no-tax, big-debt budget would last much longer than the sting of cynical words.

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