Calbuzz Classics: How to Think About Budget Mess


Watching the sad spectacle of Governor Gandalf yet again expounding on California’s budget horrors Monday was like going to see one of those dreadful,  anemic sequels to a long-ago tapped-out blockbuster franchise.

“Jaws 5: Devouring the Poor,” maybe, or “Die Hard Drowning in Red Ink” or even, “Groundhog Day 2: Punxsutawney Phil’s May Revise.”

The only thing worse was reading the inane Back East commentary, written by the usual assortment of Romney-sniffing blowhards, ill-informed thumbsuckers and right-wing mantra-chanters whose knowledge and understanding of California politics seems proscribed by the collected rantings of Flashreport freelancers and the world’s shortest book, viz. The Wit and Wisdom of Jon Coupal.

By far the day’s dumbest offering was submitted by the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn, who must have spent at least 10 or 15 minutes after lunch coughing up his hairball analysis comparing Jerry Brown to Chris “Two Man” Christie without mentioning what you might call some of your Key Differences between California and New Jersey like, oh say Prop. 13, Prop. 98 or the two-thirds vote. But we digress.

The funniest comment came from the governor his own self, who put a new entry into Krusty’s Collected Coinages by characterizing the maze of interlocking and convoluted political and financial entanglements that define the chronic budget mess as “a pretzel palace of incredible complexity.”

Spurred by that fine phrase, utterly exhausted by watching the wheezy old Lakers vainly try to run with the OKC Thunder and certain that, as past is prologue,  everything worth saying about the budget plague has long ago been said, we burrowed deeply into our incomparable Dustbin of History Archive, returning to the surface with three Calbuzz Classics that frame the issue for all time:

Why California is still broke(n). Once upon a time, before anyone had heard of Tanning Mom, Instagram or Dubstep, we proved with geometric logic that the state’s fiscal woes, far more than a simple matter of budgetary arithmetic, in fact result from a confluence of mind-numbing political calculus.

Since then, some incremental progress has been made in addressing the utterly dysfunctional structure of state government, most notably the terrific job done by the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission and the electorate’s willingness to throw down a bet on the new top-two primary system as a way to send at least a few more pragmatic pols and a few less ideological hacks to the swampland of Sacramento. Sadly, the bottom line remains the same:

As state and local officials struggle to weather a fiscal crisis that threatens to drive California into insolvency, they wield power with the damaged machinery of a patchwork government system that lacks accountability, encourages stalemate and drifts but cannot be steered.

In this system, elected leaders carry responsibility, but not authority, for far-reaching policies about public revenues and resources. That’s not governance — it’s reactive management of a deeply flawed status quo.

The Death of Compromise. In contrast to their hero Ronald Reagan, today’s Sacramento Republicans reject the very notion of compromise and good-faith negotiations in politics, as shown by their hold-our-breath-til-we-turn-blue act last year, when they refused to let California voters decide whether to raise taxes on themselves, a move that likely would have eased the impact of the financial train wreck now unfolding in the Capitol:

Like Reagan, Brown is at heart a traditionalist, embracing the old-school belief that politics is the art of the possible, fueled by negotiations in the service of finding agreement. That is why Brown keeps expecting Republicans to want to negotiate for things they want in exchange for things he wants. But the vast majority of the GOP minority doesn’t want to negotiate, because they don’t want an agreement.

Brown’s focused and patient efforts to craft a budget deal belie the decades-old rap on him as too heedless and flaky for the painstakingly hard work of governing. He can only hope, however, that amid all the posing, grandstanding and strutting in the Republican caucus, there are at least a couple of grown-ups with the backbone to stand up and help him do the job.

Oh never mind.

Friends make the worst enemies. Of all the budgetary idiocy that’s unfolded since Gandalf took office, not least of it the Department of Finance’s blue-sky, rosy scenario revenue projections last summer, the single lamest move may be the legislative leadership’s delay of previously agreed-to cuts that made the current awful problem worse, a shining example of a political dynamic we described with a major assist from Calbuzz Poet Laureate William Butler Yeats.

But for a governor of California in recent years – at least since the days of Pete Wilson and Willie Brown, when leaders had power and deals could be made and enforced — finding that one’s most difficult challenge is the opposition party is actually an anomaly. For Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger — and this year Jerry Brown — the most debilitating opposition force in Sacramento is the extreme wing of his own party…

Jerry Brown is a centrist. Like Wilson, Davis, Schwarzenegger, he is trying to hold the center while those filled with passionate intensity flap and swirl around him. It is no service to the civic good for those on his left to set loose mere anarchy…

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


subscribe to comments RSS

There are 4 comments for this post

  1. avatar smoker1 says:

    When you say that our problems are rooted in Prop 13 or the 2/3 vote, it implies that we need higher taxes to solve our fiscal problems. As a reminder, our sales tax rate is 7.25% (higher in many counties) which is the highest in the nation. Our income tax rate is 9.3% which is the highest in the nation (except for very high earners in Hawaii). Our gas tax is 41.2 which is the highest in the nation.

    Our property tax rate is very low. Except for those states with no property tax, it might be the lowest rate in the nation. However, our property values are still higher than most of the nation, so the actual revenues are not too far from the top. The fact that so much corporate property is held at 1978 values brings in a fairness issue and that needs to be addressed.

    I just don’t see how we can conclude that our problems stem from low taxes. There must be other factors. Like maybe spending.

  2. avatar Chris Reed says:

    Oh, man, how is it humanly possible to write 1,000 words about California’s dysfunction without mentioning unions?

    C’mon, guys, this is Skelton-esque.

  3. avatar GeoHagop says:

    If we had Alaska’s or Texas’ extraction tax, the problem would be solved.
    If we had corporations paying property taxes, the problem would be solved.
    If we had our own bank, like North Dakota, the problem would be solved.
    If we taxed hedging, speculation and derivative transactions, well…I’m repeating myself.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.