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California's budget held hostage

His demands have merit, but Sen. Abel Maldonado can't put politics above what's good for California.

February 18, 2009

It must be pretty heady, having people who never used to remember your name suddenly realize you're the most important person in the universe. It must be like being the lead character in one of those teen dramas about the mousy kid who (surprise) becomes the head cheerleader or the homecoming queen and dishes out comeuppance to the kids who used to make fun of her. What would you do if you suddenly had that power?

That's been the question for Abel Maldonado, the strawberry farmer who became mayor of Santa Maria and who, as a Republican state senator, has held the one vote that could balance California's budget or send the state headlong into default. Hey, governor! Remember when I asked you to endorse me for state controller and you wouldn't? Hey, Democrats! Remember when I asked you to curb spending and you didn't? Who's sorry now?

Anyone would want to stretch out the sweet moment as long as possible. But lawmakers are either serious about wanting to save their state from fiscal collapse or they're not.

Few could disagree with Maldonado's very real concerns about raising taxes in the midst of a recession. But the budget compromise that a majority of his Republican colleagues irresponsibly rejected incorporates most of what they insisted be included before tax increases would be considered: a spending cap (although a flexible one); deep cuts to education and other programs; borrowing from funds that voters demanded be left intact. The GOP members offered no other plan, so there's no actual alternative to the agreement among Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democrats and the Republican leadership, which includes painful but moderate tax increases. The implied alternative -- get California out of the public education business, let local voters fend for themselves on funding public safety -- pursues an extremist agenda demonstrably against Californians' wishes and far outside the scope of Maldonado's centrist and pragmatist political history.

Each of the senator's eleventh-hour demands has merit. Open primaries could return the state to its centrist tradition. Banning lawmaker pay raises when California faces budget deficits and halting pay altogether when the budget is late are sensible enough. Remove pork spending? Sure -- and there go the other budget votes.

There was a point at which Maldonado's reform demands began to look suspiciously like his next campaign for controller rather than a moral stance for centrist pragmatism. Here's one not-very-promising campaign slogan: "I demanded reform. They wouldn't give it to me, so I sent your state over the cliff." We've seen that movie too, and we don't like the way it ends.

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