Ross Baseball Budget Plan: Now More Than Ever


At first glance, the Legislature’s scheduled votes on competing Democrat and Republican budget plans in both houses Tuesday looks like just one more skirmish in the endless partisan war over state finances. In fact, it could be the crucial first step in forging a long-term solution to the annual budget melt-down. When Calbuzz –- issue-driven, solution-oriented! — heard about the head-to-head budget votes, it reminded us that exactly this framework was the key to a reform of the process first proposed here 15 months ago by our pal Richie Ross. As nothing’s changed at the Capitol, the notion looks better than ever, so we’re re-offering the piece with our Seal of Approval. Anyone have a better idea?

By Richie Ross
Special to Calbuzz

I didn’t appreciate baseball arbitration until I experienced it.

In his Indian Gaming Compacts, Governor Schwarzenegger added a “baseball arbitration” dispute process to use whenever an Indian Tribe and a local government couldn’t resolve differences in negotiating an “Intergovernmental Service Agreement” to mitigate the impacts a casino could have on local government services.

In the case of the Buena Vista Rancheria and Amador County, the sides were so far apart in 2006 that the County Supervisors put an advisory measure on the ballot and 80% of the voters opposed the Tribe’s casino no matter what they offered to local government.

The “negotiations” went on for 3 years until the Tribe triggered the arbitration provision in the Compact. Baseball arbitration.

Unlike most arbitrations, in which a neutral finder of fact weighs the two sides, looks for middle ground, then crafts a solution to impose on the parties, baseball’s version is an all-or-nothing proposition. The arbitrator looks at the final position of each side and chooses one. Each side only knows its own final position, not the other. One side’s position is chosen in its entirety. The other is rejected.

The results in the Buena Vista Rancheria-Amador County dispute were fascinating — after all, I get paid to fight with people. Even though I believed the Tribe was right and the County was wrong, I found myself looking for ways to help the Tribe moderate its position to enhance its appeal to the arbitrator (and avoid a final position that could end up losing everything).

Reacting as wisely as she could based on best guesses about what the county’s final position might look like, Tribal Chairwoman Rhonda Morningstar Pope knew that winning in baseball arbitration meant giving up some strongly felt positions in order to achieve a successful deal from a County Board of Supervisors that didn’t want a deal at all.

In the end, the Tribe guessed right. Their final position never had to be arbitrated at all. The County accepted it. No one won. No one lost. Both sides moderated their positions and behavior.

So here’s how the idea would work step-by-step:

1. Institute a two-year budget process. The idea’s been around for a long time. It’s used in a number of other states. Seems to work fine.

2. Start the fiscal year on December 1. There’s nothing magical about the current July 1 start. The Feds start in October. A lot of businesses start in January. So let’s move the state’s to December 1 of the even-numbered years.

3. Make Republicans and Democrats write a complete budget. Right now, Republicans hang on to the 2/3rds majority requirement because they say it’s the only way they can be relevant. But they never have to write a complete budget plan, they just potshot the Democrats’ plan. That’s an accountability-free zone. And Democrats tell their groups how they wish they could raise the taxes to save programs but the Republicans won’t let them.

4. Put both budgets on the general election ballot — baseball arbitration style. Neither needs a majority. The one with the most votes wins.

Voters and the “winners” will live with the outcome for two years. If we like the budget we had, we’ll reward them with re-election and another budget. If they sold us on a turkey, we’ll punish them at the polls and probably give the other side’s budget a chance.

Prediction: Republican politicians will have to moderate their political position and pledges because they might win their “all-cuts” budget battle and risk getting wiped out at the polls when they stand for re-election. And Democrats will finally have to face the fact that voters may not want to cut but sure as heck won’t want to raise every tax that every interest group asks for.

I think both parties would find themselves modifying their positions on budgets because a political “victory” in one-year might mean election losses the next.

Consequences will moderate behavior. Voters will have to live with their decisions. And so will both parties. A budget process with consequences. Consequences of rejection now if you are extreme, or rejection later if you get what you want now. That just might work. It’s worth a try.

Richie Ross has nearly 40 years experience, in and out of government, as a political strategist and campaign consultant.

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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar doughnut70 says:

    This was a good column when it was first written, but I am not sure it is necessary now. Right now polling shows the majority budget measure passing and if that happens, Democrats will be able to pass their budget without Republican votes.

  2. avatar tonyseton says:

    Step one is to institute public financing of elections. Today’s news reports legislators raising $380,000 in the past five days, presumably for how they are voting on the final flurry of bills. Two, we need to elect legislators who are working for the people of California, not for their self-aggrandizement, and they should produce a sound budget that the people don’t have to vote on. Three, we need a new way of thinking that doesn’t involve fighting and players like Ross who get off on — and rich from — battles over the common weal.

  3. avatar Divebomber says:

    An interesting plan… I’d love to see this “baseball arbitration” process applied to collective bargaining with public employee unions. Don’t hold your breath, though…

    As for Mr. Ross’ plan, I think he makes some excellent points. However, I disagree with a few of them.

    1.Institute a two-year budget process – This kind of happened over the last two years here in California, but didn’t have any real benefit, mostly because the budget had mid-year revisions. However, it might help with some of the madness that occurs when budget years start to overlap. Worth a try…

    2. Start Fiscal Year on December 1. In theory, this sounds like a simple issue. However, in practice, it would be a procedural nightmare. Have you ever tried to get any business done around the Christmas holiday period? ( Or the more politically inclusive, “Chrishahukquanzmas Holiday Period”.) State agencies go through a book-closing period after the end of the old FY that makes private business book-closing look like an exercise in Quicken check book management. Moving the FY year to a period in the middle of the winter holiday season (Thanksgiving-New Years) would be trouble in that most budgetary processes would come to a literal standstill, which would affect more people than it does now. I vote to leave the date where it is now.

    I think the reason Mr. Ross suggests Dec. 1 is that he believes it would force legislators to get the budget done on-time. Though it might add some impetus, so far, they haven’t shown any concern about hitting mandated deadlines and I don’t think throwing it into the middle of the holiday season will solve the issue. The fact is, until the State Police are sitting outside the legislative chambers, waiting to cart them off to jail unless they meet the deadlines mandated by law, they will continue to ignore the very laws they make – and hold everyone else accountable to.

    3. Make everyone write a complete budget. Amen! If the Republicans are throwing stones at the Dem’s budget, then they should have a complete budget to set up for target practice also. It’s easy to poke holes in other ideas. It’s another thing entirely to have to put your own up for intense scrutiny.

    4. Put both budgets on the general election ballot. This idea, albeit a interesting concept on the surface, has a major flaw. It places budgeting firmly in the realm of special interest politics and self-interest. Much like the proposition system has been hi-jacked by big money donations, imagine the political campaigns and associated graft created when the general populace is asked to select a budget? The unions (and on the other side, large corporations) would spend huge dollars on ads, “ghost voter” registration, etc.

    Besides, I’m not sure I buy into the whole, “Democracy over Republic” thing. We “hire” our “representatives” to do this work for us, (a Republic) yet the trend is for the populace to vote on the most minor, yet politically unsavory issues that we generally know little about – except what the various ads on both sides tell us.

    Our founding fathers where very intelligent and well-versed in history and philosophy, and thus intentionally founded a “Republic”, not a “Democracy”, for reasons that should be obvious. Democracies have historically failed and fallen into totalitarianism. Having the populace vote on a budget would be a huge step towards that end. What would you vote for? A budget that makes you have to work for your living, or one that promises free benefits for life? And thus the fatal flaw of a democracy.

    As for who to arbitrate a budget… I have no good suggestion. But then, I haven’t really thought much about it yet, either.

  4. avatar SezMe says:

    I want to underscore Divebomber’s fourth point. Putting the budget on the ballot is a disastrous idea. We’ve already seen the corrosive effect of money on the Proposition process. Imagine that multiplied several times over for the whole budget.

    And speaking of the whole budget, at least propositions have a summary paragraph that voters can read quickly and get a sense of it. How are you going to summarize a bill hundreds of pages long with a myriad of numbers in it. And you KNOW virtually nobody is going to read the whole bloody thing. So the voters would be set up to be manipulated by sleazy political ads, which cost money, which brings me back to my opening.

    As Divebomber notes, we have a Republic for a reason.

    If the baseball idea has merit, build it into the existing budgeting process. For example, force the two parties to put full and complete budgets on the floor. The one getting the most votes is it. Period. No negotiating.

    Or something else. Or modify the 2/3 requirement in the existing process. But whatever change is made, having the general public vote on detailed fiscal matters should not be included.

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    Seems like a roundabout way to fix something that could more easily be fixed by a return to Democracy in the legislature, which may quite possibly happen this election cycle. I appreciate the writer’s enthusiasm for the particulars of his story, but I don’t think they apply here. A return to simple majority rule will of course devastate the Republican power base, but that’s not a bad thing.

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