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California needs this imperfect budget

Sacramento's budget plan makes painful choices, but rejecting it would risk financial meltdown.

February 13, 2009

There is plenty in the state budget deal, soon to face a vote in the Legislature, to make lawmakers, interest groups and Californians in general feel queasy. Just when the safety net for seniors and the working poor is most needed, this budget slashes it. Just when everyone agrees it's time to kick the borrowing habit, this budget borrows from funds voters earmarked exclusively for particular programs. Just when Californians could use some extra cash to tide them through tough times, this budget raises taxes.

But what lawmakers and voters must understand is that the choice is not between this budget and some theoretical better deal; it is between this budget and fiscal meltdown. Any negative aspect of the budget is bound to become even worse without the budget, as state payments stop, teachers are laid off and bondholders sue over unpaid interest. A vote in favor of the deal means California can weather the recession and begin to rebuild. A vote against it is a reckless, politically selfish invitation to default. It's well past time to get the budget done.

Some Republican lawmakers say they still intend to vote no because the deal would raise taxes, and they want to be able to preserve their political career options by denying they ever were party to such a move. The irony is that in so voting, they will be aligning themselves with fiscal irresponsibility and will deserve to have that label follow them in every election they face. GOP lawmakers who vote yes will have to tell their constituents why they did so, but those who vote no will have to explain, for the duration of their careers, why they chose their own aspirations as politicians over solvency and support for Californians' quality of life. A yes vote is difficult; a no is cynical and inexcusable.

Besides, Republican members' imprint on the deal is far out of proportion to their numbers. Together with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, they hammered out spending restrictions that are short of a hard cap but that Democrats could, grudgingly, live with. The GOP got corporate tax breaks and won reappropriation of money from ballot measures intended to pay for mental health and childhood development. They appear to have won concessions on workplace rules. Democrats must likewise show backbone and stand up to labor interests and human service advocates who cannot or will not see that the state is running out of options, and that without a budget, they will be hurt well beyond whatever concessions they must sustain.

Voters must recognize their role in making deep cuts and modest tax increases necessary. Californians have long demanded more for less. The bill has come due, and for a while, we may have to accept a little less and pay a little more.

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