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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Legislators offer same old same old

December 11, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — California's Capitol has been shrouded in fog -- literally and figuratively. The literal fog is seasonal and can smother the Central Valley for days on end this time of year. The figurative fog is year-round.

Both types are a curse. They depress moods, hamper vision and are characterized by denseness.

The literal fog is called tule fog, and it is created on the ground. The figurative fog develops in the mind and results in zombie-like repetitive rhetoric and actions -- sort of like in the movie "Groundhog Day."

You remember how the Bill Murray character, the TV weatherman jerk, keeps repeating the same day over and over until he finally reexamines his life and priorities and transforms himself.

Our legislators -- mainly Republicans, but Democrats too -- keep replaying the same budget battle, sounding the same bugle calls and going nowhere. In fact, the going keeps getting tougher.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Wednesday that the projected deficit for the current fiscal year has risen to $14.8 billion, based on a $103-billion general fund budget. That's up from $11.2 billion in early November.

The governor accused the Legislature of "playing chicken" to see "who blinks first" -- Republicans on tax increases or Democrats on spending cuts and GOP "reform" demands. But Democrats already have given substantially on cuts, whacking the aged, blind and disabled, for starters.

Schwarzenegger implored legislators at a news conference " to be leaders . . . to compromise . . . to come to a conclusion here and solve this financial problem once for all."

But the lawmakers are not even close to uniting behind a strategy to rescue state government from free-falling off a cliff.

To be fair, this is not the total fault of a dysfunctional Legislature. It's because California is one of the few states that foolishly require a two-thirds legislative vote for passage of a budget or tax increase. That leads to minority tyranny and gridlock.

Last time I checked, Schwarzenegger still swore allegiance to the two-thirds hurdle that is the principal cause of the legislative inaction, a standoff that he said Wednesday is heading the state toward "a financial Armageddon." With a majority vote, the governor still could veto anything the Legislature sent him.

But the rules are what they are and will be until changed by the voters. Democrats must find a way to pick off at least three Republican votes in each house for a tax increase. They may be able to do that by giving the GOP some face-saving, business-friendly concessions on workplace and environmental regulations, plus some long-term budgeting restraints.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger reported, the state deficit grows by $470 a second -- $28,000 a minute, $40 million a day.

The Legislature's figurative fog has been especially evident in two special legislative sessions: first in robotic budget debates by each lame duck house on Nov. 25, and again Monday during a rare joint gathering of the new, but not necessarily improved, Legislature.

Particularly tiresome has been the repeated, inbred auto-response from Republican legislators, new and old, that a recession is no time to be raising taxes; it just makes the economy worse.

Of course, the modern GOP thinks there's never a good time to raise taxes. But leave that aside.

A little civics refresher is needed here: The main responsibility of a state legislature is not to repair or even fret about the economy. That's a federal task. Washington is allowed to print funny money and run deficits. The state must make ends meet.

The principal duty of a legislature -- as opposed to Congress -- is to pass an honestly balanced budget and make sure spending and revenue match. Or else state government eventually implodes -- stops paying vendors, halts construction projects, can't even borrow. That's almost where we are now.

Yes, higher taxes hurt the economy. But guess what: So does cutting back on government spending. Fired state workers can't buy from local merchants. When construction projects are stopped, contractors lose money and workers get laid off. Reduce welfare and the poor have even less to spend at the grocery.

Schwarzenegger's budget chief, Finance Director Mike Genest, told the joint Senate-Assembly get-together that spending cuts are "just about as bad" as higher taxes.

The new nonpartisan legislative analyst, Mac Taylor, said that "whatever we do will have a negative impact" on the economy. "But you have to balance the budget."

And if the budget is not balanced before Christmas, Democratic state Treasurer Bill Lockyer calmly warned the lawmakers, the state will need to start shutting down hundreds of public works projects because he won't be able to sell the construction bonds. Talk about hurting the economy.

"Billions of dollars that would have gone to thousands of private sector businesses, creating tens of thousands of jobs, will be cut off," the treasurer said.

Republicans rightly gripe about waste, fraud and abuse. Sure, it's there and should be rooted out as a matter of principle. But it's relative chump change.

To erase the deficit with spending cuts alone, Taylor said, would require the elimination of all funding for state universities, welfare, developmental services, mental health and in-home supportive services.

That's one example. Or you could release all the prisoners. That would help. Not even Republicans are going to vote for any of that.

The literal fog starts lifting in Sacramento around Ground Hog Day in February. California can't wait that long for the figurative fog to clear out.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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