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If it's good for baseball, maybe it's good for the budget debate

A man who knows his way around Sacramento and the national pastime suggests arbitration.

June 01, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Here's an idea from out of left field for how to finally end California's losing streak with state budgets. It is called "baseball arbitration."

Many suggestions for reforming Sacramento's embarrassing budget process are being batted around, but none is as wild as this one.

"Whatever you call this idea, please don't call it 'reform,' " requests the author, veteran Democratic political consultant Richie Ross, who thinks that many so-called reforms -- starting with campaign finance -- have mucked up Sacramento. He's right.

Ross has been a Sacramento political player for 35 years -- he was Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's chief of staff -- and is a lifelong, rabid baseball fan. He calls his idea simply "baseball arbitration."

It's patterned after major league baseball's salary arbitration rule -- a rule, incidentally, saved by then-U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's new Supreme Court nominee, when she issued an injunction ending a long players' strike in 1995.

Under the rule, certain players are eligible for salary arbitration if they and their team bosses cannot agree on a contract. Each side submits an offer and the arbitrator chooses the one he considers the most fair. There's no middle ground.

Ross thinks California should adopt an arbitration rule for budgeting. Democrats and Republicans shouldn't even try to compromise, he says. "Compromise is just another word for bartering."

He'd require each party to propose a two-year budget. "Republicans never have written a complete budget, they just potshot the Democrats' plan," Ross says. "Democrats complain about Republicans not raising taxes and hold fire drills."

In Ross' game plan, each party's budget would be submitted to the arbitrator. And the arbitrator would be the electorate. Whichever budget got the most votes would go into effect.

The fiscal year would begin Dec. 1, instead of July 1. And a new budget would be voted on every two years in the November general election.

Legislators would be running for reelection on the same ballot as their budget proposal, Ross notes. There would be "consequences" for lawmakers who backed gimmicky, red-ink-stained budgets, he believes, and that would ultimately "moderate behavior." Soon, he predicts, the parties' budgets "would start looking pretty similar" to win the voters' approval.

Voters also would have to live with the consequences of their budget decisions. "Now, the voters get to be as big a blowhards as the politicians," Ross asserts.

The governor could take out his line-item veto pen once the electorate sent him a budget.

Well, where to begin?

First, I thought one loud message from California voters on May 19 -- the few who cast ballots and the many who didn't -- was that they wanted the Legislature and governor to solve all the budget problems themselves. Voters are tired of Sacramento bucking complex decisions to them. And they've never seen anything as complicated as a 1,300-page state budget.

"Voters might find it refreshing," Ross counters. "And you could summarize it in 100 words. Do it in a paragraph."

Second, it seems a game rigged for Democrats, who greatly outnumber Republicans in voter registration.

That's democracy, Ross replies. Anyway, independent voters are fast gaining on both parties.

Third, isn't this just a full employment act for political consultants? They'd be guaranteed yet another ballot measure fight in every general election.

Ross counts at least a dozen budget "reform" measures that have been on state ballots during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's watch. "Give me a break," he says.

Fourth, our republican form of representative democracy has worked pretty well for 220 years, despite recent errors in California, and shouldn't be benched. "Baseball arbitration" as a budget fix won't get to first base. And Ross seems to know it.

"I'm trying to challenge today's operating assumptions," he says. "The system needs to be turned on its head."

His novel idea's value is that it could stimulate thought and crowd chatter.

The current chatter is mostly about a proposed state constitutional convention, California's first in 130 years. The purpose would be to rewrite outdated, impractical constitutional provisions dealing with government, elections, the budget -- take a fresh look at California's needs in the 21st century.

The growing consensus outside the state Capitol is that Sacramento can't reform itself. It won't. And even if it would, the public wouldn't accept the product as credible.

So the Bay Area Council, a business group, is pushing to place an initiative on the November 2010 ballot calling for the convention.

Problem is, who gets to be a delegate?

The council favors random selections from a "jury pool" of ordinary citizens. But jury panels don't always work even in court trials.

I'd rather have delegates elected locally or appointed by, say, boards of supervisors. True, that risks too much special interest influence. But we're fortunate that delegates to America's first constitutional convention were elected locally and included the likes of Jefferson and Madison.

Another reform group, California Forward, also is pressing for either legislative action or -- more likely -- ballot initiatives in 2010 and 2012 to overhaul government. Its proposals could include shifting more power and revenue from Sacramento to local governments, extending legislative term limits and allowing state budgets to be passed by a majority vote rather than two-thirds.

Just doing that last one -- eliminating the stalemate-producing two-thirds vote requirement for budget passage (never mind taxes) -- would amount to a home run.

Add a couple more hits -- term limits extension, initiative reform -- and you'd have a nice Sacramento rally.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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