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GOP: Going Over the Precipice

Because of a quirk in California's Constitution, the minority Republicans have managed to push through a budget that makes the state sicker and dumber. Where is the Democrats' white knight?

July 23, 2009|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.

The most basic principle of any democracy is that of majority rule, with minority rights running a clear but close second. Simple though this precept may be, California seems to have gotten it backward. The budget deal that emerged from Sacramento on Monday was the result of minority rule -- the consequence of a state Constitution that vests more power in the minority party than the constitution of just about any other state.

Under normal circumstances, this constitutional anomaly doesn't result in minority rule. But during the budget impasse of the last several months, it did.

The provisions in California's Constitution that require a two-thirds vote to pass the state's budget and all tax increases were always something of a booby trap, and in the current crop of legislative Republicans -- a minority party with just over one-third representation in both houses -- it found its boobies. During the steep recessions of the early '70s and the early '90s, Republican Govs. Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson worked with their legislative colleagues in both parties to make up the major budget shortfalls through a combination of higher taxes and spending cuts. This generation of Republicans, however, decided to close a $26-billion shortfall entirely through gimmicks and cutbacks, and the state's Constitution gave them the power to game the situation to their advantage.

Essentially, the Sacramento Republicans played the same game that Newt Gingrich's congressional Republicans played when they forced the closure of the federal government in the winter of 1995-96 in order to force Medicare cuts on a reluctant President Clinton. But the Gingrichites did not prevail: Clinton called their bluff and let the government stay closed, and at the prodding of such relative moderates in their ranks as Bob Dole, they backed down.

Like the Gingrichites, the Sacramento Republicans began to close down the government -- in their case, by refusing to pass a budget unless it addressed the shortfall entirely through cuts. But Sacramento 2009 has some signal differences from Washington 1996. For one thing, the Democrats have no well-known leader to argue their case -- both to legislators and to the public. For another, there are no more moderates in the Republicans' shrunken ranks. And crucially, the state Constitution gives the GOP the power to hold to its extremist views and nonetheless prevail. Faced with a choice between badly diminished public services and, should the state continue to be budgetless, no public services at all, the Democratic leadership acceded to the Republicans' demands.

The consequences of those demands are stark. Hundreds of thousands of children will lose their healthcare and tens of thousands of aged and disabled California will lose their in-home support services. Public K-12 schools will continue to lay off teachers and cut class offerings, and both the University of California and the state university system will have their state funding cut by roughly 20%. At a time when state business leaders are crying out for a better-educated workforce, the Republicans in the Legislature have pushed through policies that will make the state both sicker and dumber.

The cutbacks also will deepen the state's already deep recession. Public employees will have less money to spend. City and country redevelopment agencies, their funds impounded by Sacramento, will suspend their construction projects -- and there are precious few construction projects in the state today besides those that redevelopment agencies are funding.

Indeed, the cutbacks may trigger a vicious cycle: By worsening the recession, they further reduce state revenues, which will lead to even more cutbacks as long as the Republicans continue to cling to one-third of the Legislature and to their distinctive brand of concern for the welfare of the state. (They are concerned about California like the Visigoths were concerned about Rome.)

The Republicans' California isn't a state that most Californians want to live in. Given a choice between creating an extraction tax on oil companies (a tax that every other state with oil already has, but which the Sacramento Republicans rejected) and decimating the state's universities, I think Californians would opt to tax Exxon rather than reduce the number of science students. But how do we stop the downward spiral before Republicans reduce the state to the status of an Oklahoma or Alabama or the other GOP garden spots?

First, Democrats in the Legislature should consider calling the GOP's bluff and voting against the budget deal -- but they can't make their case absent a public spokesman. It's time for Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom to rise to the challenge that Clinton did when he stood down Gingrich. And second, Californians need to amend their state Constitution, in convention if need be, to end the practice of minority rule. Democracy -- not to mention the future of the state -- depends on it.

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