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No country for bold men

Why do Sacramento's pols duck the hard decisions about taxes and spending?

March 23, 2008|William Voegeli | William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center.

You might imagine the idea of political courage to be challenging and noble. John F. Kennedy found it compelling enough to write a famous book on the topic more than 50 years ago. The brave politicians he celebrated in "Profiles in Courage" included some surprising -- one might even say courageous -- choices for a young Democratic senator preparing to run for president. For instance, Kennedy wrote admiringly of Republican Sen. Robert Taft's principled opposition to the Nuremberg war trials in 1946.

In California's budget crisis, the meaning of political courage should be a straightforward matter: a politician's determination to do the right thing even if it antagonizes his party's base. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently did that when he indicated that he was open to a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to close the state's $14.5-billion budget deficit, a departure from his previous insistence that only the latter was an option. Columnists and political observers applauded the governor for growing in office.

Schwarzenegger's three Republican predecessors -- Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Ronald Reagan -- have also been recently praised for their willingness to take on their GOP political bases by raising taxes to close budget shortfalls during their administrations. The plaudits came from commentators who do not usually sit in the cheering section for conservative Republicans.

State Democrats can also antagonize their party's base. Before voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 13 in 1978, for instance, Gov. Jerry Brown stayed on message, calling the property-tax-cutting initiative a "consumer fraud, a rip-off, a legal morass and a long-term tax increase." The state's educators and public employee unions, key Democratic constituencies, echoed him. The state school superintendent said Proposition 13 would cause class size to grow to 60 students and "do nothing short of destroying education in California."

After the vote, however, Brown campaigned for reelection that fall as a "born-again tax cutter" determined to make Proposition 13 work, a message that infuriated his base. There were heated debates at the time as to whether Brown was showing political courage or placating tax-cutters. Thirty years later, the topic can still ignite an argument among Californians.

This year's budget crisis offers ample opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to show political courage. California's voters deserve a comprehensive examination of the entire $100 billion to be spent this year by the state to determine the best and most effective use of each dollar. Our elected leaders should sort out, as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommends, "which state programs provide essential services or are most critical to California's future." The implicit corollary is that we need to cut the funding of those programs that are least critical to California's future. Such scrutiny requires, above all, a willingness to identify those government activities that persist and grow because they have strong, determined constituencies -- but weak rationales.

State Democrats have adamantly opposed this kind of rigorous examination. For instance, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) has said Democrats in the Legislature will reject any budget that spends less on education next year than this. Apparently, there is not even one dubious program, one extraneous or misspent dollar in the $40 billion the state proposes to spend on education in 2008-09. His alternative to Schwarzenegger's proposed 10% cut in education spending is unburdened by nuance: "Raise taxes. That clear enough? Raise taxes."

The alternative budget recently proposed by the Legislative Analyst's Office is crowded with challenges for truly courageous politicians to do something to affront their base. Among other things, it urges higher tuition at UC and Cal State institutions, coupled with an increase in need-based financial aid. The office's underlying challenge is that a budget crisis is a particularly apt time to rethink the idea that tuition subsidies for, say, cardiologists' kids attending UCLA are a wise use of the state's scarce resources. Diverting more of the higher-education budget to nurses' kids relying on financial aid would promote fairness and efficiency.

Many upper-middle-class Republicans send their children to public universities, or plan to. These voters are accustomed to rhetoric about cutting government benefits for the undeserving poor. They will be less receptive to proposals to cut the tuition subsidies the state offers to the undeserving affluent.

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