Top-Down Grassroots Leaders Decide Unilaterally To Make Budget Reform More Impossible
Since it's Don't Curse Week here in LA County, I will be forced to be brief. Last night a group of grassroots activists, including remnants of the Obama organizers in California, various progressive advocacy groups, and Democratic Club leaders, discussed a potential citizen-led ballot initiative to reform the California budget process. Nobody disputes that something drastic must be done to permanently end the conservative veto and restore democracy to the process. If you ask 100 activists what needs to be done you will get 105 answers. Arriving at the conclusion that offers the best opportunity for success, both in being adopted as a reform by the voters and as a practical matter for the legislature, ought to be opened to a vigorous debate and a deliberative process.
That is the direct opposite of what happened yesterday, when a group of self-appointed leaders tried to dictate the form in which the reform will take, and sought to invite the remainder of the group to join their already-decided-upon course of action. So the fight to restore democracy has begun with an undemocratic edict, from the grassroots no less, that is based in the same kind of mushy, don't-make-waves approach that has devastated the state for decades upon decades. If it sounds topsy-turvy, you're not alone.
In short, the self-appointed leadership has decided to put up a website to "eliminate the two-thirds rule" and "restore majority rule" to the budget process. This is a very tightly controlled statement based on, essentially, the fiction that eliminating the two-thirds rule is what these folks are seeking to do. They are not. As you may know, there is a 2/3 rule for passing a budget, and a 2/3 rule for any changes in the tax code that involve increasing revenue. To the layman, this might seem like two discrete parts, but that's really not true. A budget includes taxes, spending, and a few other priorities. Changing one without the other does actually nothing to overcome the conservative veto. And yet this is what the self-appointed grassroots leadership's proposal would do, only covering the repeal of 2/3 for passing a budget and not for taxation.
This is really the final blow in what was a long slide away from progressive leadership at the grassroots level. I've heard a lot of justifications and rationales for not including fully half of the equation of settling a budget in the process of reforming the budget, most of them so twisted with pretzel logic as to be indecipherable. Some say that there's no way tax changes could pass in the current environment, so we should strive to make whatever progress we can. That's the kind of tissue-soft, gutless, out-of-touch-with-where-America-is-right-now statement that has made California a political basket case. Those who bow down to the keepers of the tax revolt are usually the same people that are saying a spending cap that includes tax increases is destined to pass, or the same people saying a constitutional convention will take care of the tax problem even though it, too, is subject to a vote of the people. It doesn't make any sense. There's an argument that the polling shows any tax issues are a loser. That's just not true. The latest PPIC poll shows very little difference between repealing two-thirds for the budget and for taxes - within the margin of error.
The other argument is that California lawmakers, given a majority vote on the budget, will have powerful leverage to bend the Yacht Party to their will on tax issues, or go directly to the people with tax solutions. These are the same people who spend every day of their lives lamenting the terrible negotiating skills of Democrats in the legislature, and laughing at those who claim the Yacht Party is surely just a little bit more pressure away from folding.
I've made my position on this well-known, and I'll repeat it here.
Changing the (repeal of 2/3 for the) budget but not taxes is TOM MCCLINTOCK'S view of things. It makes Democrats own a budget that can only be modified with expenditure cuts. In the event of a deficit, Democrats would have to either cave and cut services or hold out with the exact same dynamic that we saw this year. And it will not allow the legislature to tackle the structural revenue gap that comes from a tax system too closely tied to boom-and-bust budget cycles. This is perverse consultant-class thinking that is dangerously outdated, constantly compromising, and believes in political reality as static rather than lifting a finger to change that reality. Thinking that March 2004 and June 2010 are the same is just ridiculous, and thinking that no argument can be made to the public, after the longest and most self-evidently absurd budget process in decades, that the system is fundamentally broken and has to be changed to allow the majority to do their job, is in many ways why we're in this position to begin with.
And this is where the self-appointed grassroots leadership will take us. This was carried out through perhaps a deliberative internal process ("Several hours!" we were told), but with no input from the broader grassroots. The website set up has no ability for public comment, no discussion of why the position was taken, and, most crucially, no explanation that "restoring majority rule" as conceived by the proposed ballot initiative does not restore majority rule. You can call that a lot of things, but the most accurate would be "a lie." It is a lie to suggest that this proposal would repeal 2/3. It does not. And it is being carried out in a top-down process that reminds one of the worst aspects of the Sacramento consultocracy rather than progressive leadership in the grassroots.
The working theory is that everything is on the table and this effort is initially to gauge support in the process. That it is being done through misleading means really doesn't inspire confidence in how open the process will be. They can go down that road, and I actually support signing on to the site as a show of support. But caveat emptor. And if you do sign, maybe contact the leaders and ask them why they aren't being truthful about their intentions or transparent about the decision-making process.