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Three tough steps to fiscal sanity in California

February 09, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — California state government is collapsing. It has been for years, actually. Something needs to change drastically.

As President Obama remarked last week at a congressional Democratic retreat: "If you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change directions."

Sacramento is sliding fast toward the cliff's edge.

The state can't pay all its bills. Can't sell bonds to finance public works. Can't even afford, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says, to keep most of its doors open two Fridays a month.

The chief culprit: The Legislature's inability to pass a state budget on time. Frustrated local governments and schools can't plan. Private vendors selling to the state get stiffed. Worst of all, the Capitol politicians ultimately panic, punt the state's fiscal mess into the future and pass a fraudulent budget.

Rather than cutting spending and raising taxes slightly to escape a looming deficit, the lawmakers have passed gimmicky budgets with cooked numbers that soon dig the state into an even deeper hole. And that's where we are today: in a $42-billion pit. Even with a recession, that's ridiculous.

I've harped on this for years, thinking that surely one day California would wake up.

The Legislature can't produce an on-time budget -- honest or phony -- because of the archaic requirement for a two-thirds majority vote of each house. Only two other states, Arkansas and Rhode Island, have such a monstrous hurdle. And, unlike California's, their legislatures are lopsidedly dominated by one party.

The California Legislature requires some minority party votes for a budget -- currently three Republicans in each house. And virtually all Republicans regard a vote to raise taxes as ideological blasphemy. More important, they consider it potential political suicide, fearing they'll be challenged from the right in a primary election.

So give the Republicans a break. Relieve them of any responsibility to vote for budgets and taxes that rip their souls and imperil their careers.

Here's my solution to the budget procrastination:

Lower the vote requirement for a budget to 55%. That's still a supermajority, but one that's practical given California's increasing diversity of people and interests represented in Sacramento. A budget then would need 44 votes in the Assembly and 22 in the Senate, rather than 54 and 27. Democrats normally could handle that by themselves.

Also drop the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes to 55%, with one caveat: All the new revenue must be used to help balance a status-quo budget -- not a penny for spending increases above inflation and population growth.

If they still don't pass a budget by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, the lollygagging lawmakers forfeit their pay and per diem for every day the spending plan is late. For most, that would be a hard hit. Legislators make $116,208 a year; house leaders get $133,639. Per diem is $173 tax-free each day -- even weekends -- while the Legislature is in session.

Sever the governor's pay, too, although Schwarzenegger is so wealthy he doesn't take his $212,179 salary. He does, however, mooch off special interests for Sacramento lodging, as have previous governors. That's because California doesn't provide an official governor's residence. Pretty tacky.

The concept of prodding lawmakers in the wallet is endorsed by Schwarzenegger. "If the people's work doesn't get done, I think the people's representatives shouldn't get paid," the governor said in his State of the State speech.

That should ensure an on-time budget.

I'm not totally convinced it would be good public policy. It would be unfair to legislators who vote for budgets and aren't rich. Moreover, we shouldn't be blackmailing lawmakers to pass bad budgets just to keep their pay.

But it's time to be drastic. And I am convinced it would be good politics. It could be just the inducement the electorate needs to approve a ballot measure finally eliminating the unworkable two-thirds vote.

A similar ballot measure, without the tax limit caveat, was killed in 2004 by a nearly 2-to-1 vote. But since then, the voters have become more acutely aware of Sacramento's ineptness. They may be ready to rethink the notion.

As reader Andrea e-mailed me last week: "Soon people will take to the streets with pitchforks and torches if these clowns don't get to work."

A recent statewide poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found, for the first time, that a majority of likely voters -- 53% to 41% -- think it's a good idea to lower the budget vote threshold to 55%. The poll also found that only 9% approve of how the Legislature is handling the budget-tax issue; 84% disapprove.

Some GOP leaders have said privately that they could support a majority-vote budget rule if the two-thirds requirement remained for taxes. Then Democrats alone would be accountable for spending priorities, giving the GOP a potential election issue.

Yes, it's time to let the majority party rule and to end gridlock.

Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) has proposed a constitutional amendment that would revive a pre-1962 law: A budget could be passed on a majority vote if it didn't increase spending by more than 5%. That would amount to a spending cap.

Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) has introduced a measure that decrees: "No budget, no pay, no per diem." He knows it will never pass the Legislature.

"It's the only bill where I get bipartisan opposition," he says. "If you want the Legislature to work together, you put in a bill that cuts their pay."

Cut off their allowances if they don't do their chore? Yeah, that is treating them like children. But like many parents with undisciplined kids, we're at the end of our rope.

First, however, we should make the chore doable.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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