The popular wisdom among political pundits is that the conservative state Senate Republicans holding out on the budget vote are trying to teach their more moderate Republican colleague, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a lesson in humility. The trouble is, this simplistic notion does not tell the real story and does a great disservice to the principled elected officials trying to do the right thing for the people of California.
The budget is the paramount policy document for California; it defines who we are and where we are going. The annual ritual in which it is negotiated and adopted is especially challenging because California requires a two-thirds vote -- a supermajority -- in each legislative house for passage. The Democrats control both houses with healthy majorities, but they still have to make common cause with the GOP to win enough votes to pass a budget.
There's definitely a hint of defiance aimed at the governor in the Senate GOP's refusal to compromise this year. The governor's resurgence in the polls has followed spectacular agreements last year on global warming, the minimum wage, stem cell research and infrastructure bonds. The Republican senators are sending a message to their conservative GOP base that they are willing to stand up to the governor and hold firm against any more grand compromises. But this is merely a byproduct of the real issue.
What's really motivating the GOP is that the Democrats use their majority power in the Legislature with great disregard for the minority party 11 months out of the year. Republican proposals rarely make it out of policy committees, much less to the governor's desk.
So Republicans lie in wait all year for the chance to have what is essentially veto power during budget negotiations, and they use it with relish to get as much done their way as they can before they get pushed to the sidelines again.
This year, up to a certain point, that process was quite effective. In the Assembly, it produced a budget bill that passed on a bipartisan vote and cuts spending $1.4 billion below the Democrats' plan, pays down debt, fully funds education, contains a $3.4-billion reserve (the highest rainy day fund in history), includes job-saving tax cuts for the technology and entertainment industries and brings spending almost in line with revenues this year -- leaving an operating deficit of less than $1 billion, down from a projected $16.5-billion imbalance when Schwarzenegger took office. In fact, this budget increases year-over-year spending by less than 1% while maintaining a $4.5 billion cut in vehicle license fees -- the car tax -- forced through by the governor and Republicans in 2004. In essence, this is a Republican budget if there ever was one.
As a deal-closer, Assembly Republicans secured hundreds of millions of dollars in vetoes from the governor for programs they couldn't get the Democrats to ax on their own. On the Senate side, Republicans took that even further and demanded that the governor veto enough to balance the budget this year -- a total of $700 million in vetoes. The governor agreed.
But ultimately, Senate Republicans decided that they still wouldn't vote for the compromise budget; they wanted more. They are holding out for a policy reason unrelated to the budget. They want the Democrats to curb the power of the attorney general to file lawsuits on global warming.
Senate Republicans don't seem to know how to declare victory and walk away from the table. If they continue to hold up the budget -- especially for non-budget issues -- after getting what they asked for in vetoes, the process implodes, negotiations will start from scratch, and we will likely lose the billions of dollars in reductions contained in the bill passed by the Assembly.
Schwarzenegger has worked very well with Republicans on such issues as reforming workers' compensation, cutting the car tax, building prisons, increasing the water supply and protecting the "three strikes" law. He has worked equally well with Democrats on fighting global warming, reforming healthcare, raising the minimum wage and protecting education funding. The center is where most Californians are, and that's why the centrist governor has enjoyed strong public support.
There are good ideas on both sides of the political aisle, and legislators in Sacramento -- Republican and Democrat -- are fighting for principled reasons. But sometimes compromise really does produce the best public policy, and when you cannot compromise, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.