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.