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A budget -- now what?

California lawmakers pushed a budget deal through; now the job is to cool off and work on sensible reforms.

February 20, 2009

California's economic problems are deeper today than they would have been had a balanced budget been adopted last year. But perhaps today should be reserved for expressions of relief. Although California's Republican lawmakers appeared bent on self-destruction -- and actually removed state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto as caucus chair to punish him for brokering a deal to save the state -- Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria broke from the pack, provided the one missing vote and allowed the Legislature on Thursday to finally adopt a budget that fills a nearly $42-billion hole.

Maldonado made clear that he took no joy in agreeing to raise taxes, but he displayed a measure of rectitude and understanding that most of his GOP colleagues did not. As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger noted -- and as Times columnist George Skelton pointed out Monday -- lawmakers who believed that the budget could be completed without new tax revenue needed some help with their math.

To help forestall similar standoffs, Maldonado insisted on including reforms that make a certain amount of sense, as this page noted Tuesday. A ballot measure to adopt open primaries, in which voters would cast their in a single primary and the top two finishers would meet in the general election regardless of party affiliation, would allow the majority of centrist Californians to assert their voices and no longer be represented, poorly, by the increasingly extremist wings of the Democratic and Republican parties. If voters adopt such a system, perhaps candidates from both parties will worry more about seeking consensus than about ideological purity or special-interest patronage. Schwarzenegger offered the promise of a more centrist, post-partisan approach to governing, but it took a second moderate Republican to help him move the state, for now, from its perpetual deadlock.

Members of both houses from both parties have argued over the last several months that in crisis there is opportunity, and perhaps they were referring to the kinds of reforms that Maldonado demanded, or broader constitutional revisions of the kind to be discussed at a Sacramento summit next week.

But in pushing the moment to its crisis, political leaders have courted voter reaction that goes beyond measured reform. The task for Californians, as they brace for the unfortunate but necessary cuts and tax increases, is to ensure constructive fixes to our broken system and not just angry reaction. Democrats would be wise to embrace sensible reform rather than incite more voter outrage. Republicans would be prudent to accept the budget and follow Maldonado's centrist lead, and not foolishly rise up against him.

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