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California's budget compromise

State lawmakers did what we asked with the budget mess; now it's up to the voters to do the same.

May 12, 2009|Thad Kousser | Thad Kousser is an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego and the co-editor of the book "The New Political Geography of California."

There are plenty of easy reasons to hate the package of budget reforms and tweaks that Sacramento will put before voters on May 19. Many voters on the left hate the idea of basing a spending formula on a bad budget year. They worry that doing so will lock us into the deep cuts in education and social services that lawmakers recently made. Californians on the right hate that it will extend the tax increases prompted by this year's recession into 2013. Voters across the spectrum hate the complexity of the package; Proposition 1A, just one component of it, runs 3,000 words long.

There is only one reason to love the ballot propositions, and it's a hard one to swallow: This bloated, flawed package represents exactly the type of bipartisan compromise that we say we want from our lawmakers.

It makes the tough choices necessary to balance the budget this year, putting the state on the road to a better fiscal future. Legislators and the governor reached across party lines to craft the deal, in some cases alienating key interest-group allies and in others becoming pariahs within their party caucus. Everyone took a hit in their approval ratings by producing a straight-down-the-middle compromise that raised taxes while it cut spending. Isn't this what we always claim we want them to do?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, criticized in the past for staying on the sidelines and waiting for someone else to act, took the lead on this deal. He knew it would cost him political capital, but this time he chose to spend it to keep the state running.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, the Democrat who led the fight five years ago to fund improved mental health services in the state, knew that even his favorite program had to take a cut in order to balance the budget. When he went along with the proposed cuts, even writing the ballot argument to authorize them through Proposition 1E, he accepted a short-term sacrifice to preserve services he has passionately championed throughout his legislative career.

Moderate Republican Anthony Adams and the rest of the Sacramento Six who crossed party lines to vote for the budget deal did so at their political peril. Republican legislators in the last few years have turned "no new taxes" from a policy stance into a mantra, but Adams and others saw the opportunity to trim state spending and secure long-term reforms by breaking with the party orthodoxy. Last week, an attempt to recall Adams was cleared to officially gather signatures.

These are not meant to be "Profiles in Courage" nominations. They are simply examples of elected officials doing their job, the tough job we say we want them to do. We want independent thinkers who, instead of toeing the party line and playing it safe, reach across the aisle to make the difficult decisions required to govern. They reached a historic compromise, but polling seems to show that it will all be for nothing. In fact, it is precisely the elements of a compromise that voters seem to be reacting against. Compromise forces each side to give something up; voters on the far left and far right don't look willing to do that. Compromise is complex, but the complexity of a long ballot itself seems to generate opposition.

Because of California's proud tradition of direct democracy, voters have asked for the final say on the types of fundamental changes needed to make this year's budget deal work. That's why these propositions are before us, and why a final decision on the compromise is in our hands. If we don't back it, then we can't blame all the problems of state government on politicians. We'll also have to look at ourselves.

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