The role that Republicans in the Legislature play in the great scheme of California government is becoming harder and harder to discern.
They do not legislate; neither do they allow the people of California to legislate at the ballot box. The Republicans are giving negation a bad name.
Faced with a $25-billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed spending cuts for about half that amount, which will take a major toll on the state's universities and colleges, parks and healthcare coverage. He has proposed making up the other half of the shortfall by extending for the next five years the $12 billion in tax hikes that the Legislature enacted in 2009.
At the time the hikes were passed, they were to be for one year only. When he was running for governor, Brown pledged to put his tax proposals before the voters, and he's been clear that he'd like his proposals to be put on the June ballot, so that the spending cuts and tax extensions could take effect at the start of the next fiscal year, thereby ending the annual spectacle of the state issuing IOUs because it cannot pay its bills.
To put the tax plan to a public vote in June, however, Brown needs the support of two-thirds of the members in each house of the Legislature. Republicans, who make up just over one-third of the members in each house, refuse to go along. They oppose both the tax proposals and placing them before the public for an up-or-down vote.
It's not as if the Republicans have an alternative plan, though Brown has implored them to "show me an idea."
"The governor is the one who is supposed to prepare a balanced budget," said state Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. "The governor put out his own budget with an $11- to $12-billion hole in it. That's not our responsibility; that's his responsibility."
In his State of the State address Monday, Brown challenged the Republicans not only to craft proposals of their own but to let the people have a say. "Under our form of government," he said, "it would be unconscionable to tell the electors of this state that they have no right to decide whether it is better to extend current tax statutes another five years or chop another $12 billion out of our schools, public safety, our universities and our system of caring for the most vulnerable."
Republicans have responded by stonewalling. Their argument against putting the proposal on the ballot is that voters have rejected tax increases before (though Brown's proposal doesn't increase taxes; it merely extends them). "The voters of California rejected every single statewide tax increase in both the May 2009 and November 2010 elections," said Assemblyman Donald Wagner of Irvine, arguing against letting the voters have a say.
By that logic, it's pointless to let Californians participate in the next presidential election, since the state has gone Democratic in every election since 1992.
In fact, there's reason to believe that voters would support Brown's proposal. A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed that 45% of likely voters favored closing the state's budget gap by a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, while 8% favored mostly tax increases and 41% favored mostly spending cuts. That suggests the tax extension proposal begins with at least a 10-point lead. That lead could grow as it becomes clear to voters that absent the extension, K-12 schools, which Brown has held harmless in his proposed cuts so far, would take a huge hit. A Public Policy Institute survey taken last year showed 69% support for higher taxes to stave off cuts to schools.
Republicans opposition to letting voters decide, then, looks less like an expression of the GOP's certitude that Brown's plan would fail than a sign of its fears that Brown's plan would pass.
Unwilling or unable to produce a budget plan of their own, and unwilling to let voters decide on the governor's plan for fear they will support it, the Republicans seem determined to bring both representative and direct democracy in California to a shuddering halt. If they're looking for further cuts in state spending, why don't they ax their own salaries? In a just world, the pay for doing nothing — and keeping anyone else from doing anything — would be nothing.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.