Why California “Leaders” Can’t Make a Deal


kittenThe 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.

mousey“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

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar SezMe says:

    I know you are reporters, not politicians, but I’d like to see you post an analysis of the various SOLUTIONS to the problem, not just report on the woes in Sacramento. Has any pol suggested a viable solution to the grid lock? If not, why not? If so, what are its assets/liabilities? Who are the winners and losers?

    If the stalemate continues, who are the winners and losers? Who will break the deadlock? When?

    IOW, please continue to dig.

  2. avatar Ave7 says:

    “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.”

    Well, I think we know what R&T were doing this weekend.

  3. avatar JoeCollins says:

    The single biggest obstacle to finding a solution is the unions, and not a word in this article about them. The ultra powerful teachers union and public employee unions pour millions into the election campaigns of the Elected Ones and expect pay back. They own the Elected Ones and the Elected Ones must do as directed. It doesn’t matter about the bill payers – us.

    Solution: Make the cuts, don’t raise taxes, cut education overhead, cut welfare down to federal mandated levels, elimate all boards and commissions, and put every agency’s (including education) budget at 60% of what it was last year.

    Oh yeah, reduce the salaries of the Elected Ones too.

  4. avatar LillithMc says:

    Tax the oil companies for depletion. Make separate tax rolls for residential and commercial property. Elect 2/3rd democrats and overturn the 2/3rd rule. Change Prop.13 for commercial property so they can be reassessed.
    Target the 15 GOPers who signed the pledge with Grover Norquist to obstruct government and get them out of the legislature.

  5. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Before term limits, legislators were frequently quite formidable figures.

    After term limits, to borrow a line from Borat, not so much.

    That’s especially so with regard to legislative leaders, who are now much like cat herders.

    I remember Gray Davis saying in 2002, when he couldn’t get legislators to go along with him, how Willie Brown might have been able to make things happen as speaker. But a term limited Willie Brown?

    Not so much.

    Enough of that …

    I wonder if folks are just going through a process before the inevitable. Or hoping against hope for a federal bailout. Which they shouldn’t get too invested in, making it part of the process …

  6. avatar miquel95929 says:

    Leading by consensus can be a position of strength. Maybe that is why the Assembly was able to pass the stopgap bills on a bipartisan basis- the one bright spot in this whole mess. The governor knows that a disaster movie gets attention so that’s why he does what he does though I think they are overstating their poll numbers- he’s really only in the upper 30s. The Senate is a mess- remember that Sen Reps are only 2 years removed from holding out 2 months for Yacht Tax Breaks

  7. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    This probably isn’t in World of Warcraft, but the 2/3 rule has only been in effect since the late 70s when proposition 13 was passed–not since the days of the New Deal. Though it was a little-known provision slipped in under the radar, Calbuzz should know better. Along with term limits, it provides the second half of the 1-2 punch to limit the authority of the Assembly.

  8. avatar Roberts and Trounstine says:

    Not so, Chris – you’re conflating two things. The two-thirds budget vote requirement dates from 1933, when the Riley-Stewart amendment made a number of changes to the state budget process. Prop. 13, passed in 1978, put a two-thirds threshold in place for most tax increases.

  9. avatar Ron says:

    Nothing like the economy to light a fire under our asses! We do have a crisis in California government that needs to be addressed, NOW!

    Our constitution will only pass a budget by a 2/3 vote, which actually gives controlling interest to the minority faction in the legislature, because it can hold the budget hostage until it gets what it wants. Second, because of term limits, there is no real leadership on either side of the isle. Where’s John Burton? Willie Brown? Those guys used to make closed-door compromises in late night “sessions” in cigar smoke filled rooms. Third, because of our initiative process, the small percentage of citizens who actually vote make most of the policies which control most of the money through elections. The whole legislative process is so messed up right now that we need a convention to create a new constitution that makes sense for the 8th largest economy in today’s world! Short of a new constitution, I think the best coarse is to make all necessary cuts to REALLY balance the budget – not do what they have done by shifting $ around, and borrowing from local communities. I’d rather they raise taxes, myself, but if that’s not possible, then cut, let people move in with family members, and let the suffering begin. The state will quickly become “dumber and sicker” as one analyst put it. Only then will people realize that new $ is needed to keep this state viable. One legislator said in the Times today, “If you can’t make the best possible deal, then make the best deal possible.” Maybe that’s what they did, under the circumstances, but BIG change is needed to our constitution. What can we do?

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