The constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass a budget is clearly the single most important reason why the Capitol is in a state of near-permanent political gridlock. But the two-thirds rule has been around since the New Deal and budgets used to get passed. So what’s the hang-up?
Power: Nobody’s got it.
The governor and the Legislature fulminate and flounder simply because no one in the Capitol in 2009 has the stature, clout or influence to cut a deal like Ronnie and Jesse or Pete and Willie once did.
Strip away all the policy wonkery, weed whacking and egghead analysis and you find that a combination of term limits and politically-safe, gerrymandered legislative seats has created a political atmosphere in which every legislator is an army of one – and none of them fears the governor, the speaker or any other leader in the Legislature.
“It’s difficult to deliver anything when every member of the legislature is looking over their shoulder,” says Steve Maviglio, former chief spokesman for the Assembly Speaker’s Office and before that for Gov. Gray Davis. “They’re worried about what they’re going to run for and who’s running against them – and that’s within their own caucus. Sometimes, they’re preparing to run against their own seatmates.”
Contrast this year’s with the budget meltdown of 1992, the last time California issued IOUs. Although many of the same conditions applied, the big difference was that both Gov. Pete Wilson and Speaker Willie Brown wielded enough political authority to sit down in a room and cut a deal: Wilson took responsibility for rounding up Republican votes for tax increases and Brown for putting a lid on Democratic caterwauling over program cuts.
Lou Cannon, the Ronald Reagan biographer who covered the Gipper when he was in Sacramento for the San Jose Mercury News, recalls that Reagan and Speaker Bob Moretti negotiated “for 10 straight days” over a budget that eventually included the largest tax increase for any state in history at that time.
Today, says Cannon, “There’s an awful lot of posturing and not much negotiating…these guys are negotiating in the newspapers, the ones that are left anyway, and it doesn’t seem like a real negotiation.”
We have the spectacle of a girlie man governor who flaps his arms and threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue but whom majority Democrats simply cannot trust or count on to deliver a single Republican vote for a deal to which he agrees.
“There’s a massive leadership void,” says one senior Capitol insider. “(Speaker Karen) Bass does everything by consensus. (Senate President Darrell) Steinberg is a rookie and Schwarzenegger can’t deliver any Republican votes and he’s lost interest, if he ever had any.”
Bass, a short-timer like every other speaker since term limits, has truncated authority as an enforcer, as was shown when Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno recently peeled off and went his own way. Add to that the endless series of special elections that leave her a vote or two shy of her total and she lacks standing.
In the Senate, Steinberg has been indefatigable in playing the statesman, but all for naught. Although he’s held his troops together, the Reps simply thumb their noses at him, knowing that their political survival depends, not on results, but simply on the most right-wing stances, which they can sell to win partisan primaries in partisan districts.
The budget becomes a kind of Political World of Warcraft, with taxes on business and slashes to programs for poor people as stand-ins for the armies of the undead and the necromantic power of the plague.
Term limits that hobble political leadership and gerrymandered districts that reward the wing nuts of their respective parties have made compromise nearly impossible.
“The combination of term limits and the lopsided redistricting have made these guys even more remote from the people and their constituents,” says Cannon. “All legislators live in some kind of parallel universe, but these people live in another galaxy.”
A galaxy where the center cannot hold.
— By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine