Guest View: California’s lawmakers need more motivation to pass budget on time
August 13, 2008
Five decades ago, Democrat State Assemblyman Sam Geddes, now passed on, gave some irresponsible advice to new members of that august body, the Assembly, including me: “I vote for every expenditure and against every tax increase. If asked how I would pay for the new programs, I firmly tell them I am going to cut all the fat in the budget.”
Of course, the duplicitous Geddes never found any “fat in the budget.”
A recent poll of Californians seeking their views on the current budget shambles in the state Legislature suggests that Geddes’ unreality is shared by many voters. For example, great majorities would support increases in school funding, law-enforcement programs, road-building and firefighting. Yet, when asked if they would support increased taxes for these favored vital programs to maintain their valued services, the majorities adamantly respond “no.”
The present budget crisis reflects this unrealistic view of maintaining a healthy California. The budget of $144 billion is presently confronted with a staggering $17 billion deficit. That deficit will only be eliminated by either cuts, taxes or borrowing, or a combination of each. Passing the budget requires a supermajority of a two-thirds vote of the legislators. Democrats have a majority in both houses of the Legislature, though not the necessary two-thirds vote. They are ready to meet the crisis by legislating a combination of cuts, borrowing and taxes to balance the budget. The Republicans, a minority in both houses of the Legislature, but able to deny a two-thirds vote to pass the measure, have refused to vote for any budget containing any tax increases. Nor have they yet voiced their idea of where the “cuts in the fat” of the budget necessary to meet the $17 billion deficit can be found. Sam Geddes would be proud of them.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has come up with a proposal hurtful to many working families. He would require 200,000 state employees to suffer a drastic cut in their present salaries to the insignificant sum of $6.55 per hour until the budget is passed. That sounds like a pretty tough approach to balancing the budget, but close scrutiny suggests it is a political sham. For one thing, when the budget is finally passed, they will receive a full reimbursement of their cut salaries. That, certainly, is not a cut in the budget.
And all those state employees have received this month’s full salary check and are not due to be paid again until Sept. 1. Any Republican agreement to vote for the budget will depend on the Democrats agreeing to several initiatives demanded by the Republicans. And by Aug. 15, any initiative that is being proposed for the November ballot must be submitted. The Democrats hope to be out of session by Aug. 15 so that they might attend their party’s national convention in Denver beginning Aug. 25. So it is pretty clear that both parties want the budget to be settled before Aug. 15.
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I assume, therefore, a budget agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats will occur before Aug. 15, thereby assuring all employees will receive their full check, as usual, Sept. 1.
It is shameful that every budget in California can be refused passage by a minority of legislators. The two-thirds majority vote required to pass a state budget is on the books in only three states, including California. The other 47 states require only a majority vote to adopt a budget.
There needs to be an incentive to force each and every one of the legislators to do his or her duty and arrive at a budget agreement by the June 30 deadline. As of now, the incentive is slight. Unlike all other state employees, since June 30, the day the budget was supposed to have been adopted, all legislators and their staffs have been denied their paychecks until the budget is agreed to. Most were required to take out loans until the budget is passed, at which point they will be reimbursed for their loss of paychecks but not of any interest charged on those loans.
So, yes, there is some incentive for legislators to vote a budget on time. But not much. Most of the punishment for their failure is suffered by their staff, who have had absolutely nothing to do with the foolish, partisan political games being played.
I would suggest another solution to galvanize our playful legislators into enacting a budget on time: On June 30, the day the budget is due to be passed, if it is not adopted, every legislator’s salary and in-session daily living expenses will be stopped and, when a budget is finally approved, they will not receive, as is the case today, reimbursement of even one penny of their withheld salary nor their personal living expenses. And I would require every legislator’s car provided by the state to be garaged, not to be used until the budget is passed.
I would not penalize the legislative staff. They have contributed nothing to this dilemma. Nor would I penalize state workers, as the governor has done. They, too, have not participated in the foolishness at the Capitol.
The problem is that not all, but too many, politicians are playing too many shallow political games. They and their unfortunate colleagues alone should suffer the penalties of their inexcusable behavior.
” Jerome Waldie is a former U.S. congressman, a Placerville resident and a member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board.