As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Into The Ocean

Among other places, I write at Calitics, the progressive site covering California politics. This is often a punishing experience. Since 1978, Proposition 13 has tilted the very structure of government in an unassailably conservative direction - 2/3 votes are needed to raise taxes, but only a simple majority to cut. As a result, politicians invariably take the path of least resistance, and as the Norquistian right rose to prominence in the state GOP, they learned that they could simply hijack the budget process for their own ends. State leaders compensated with borrowing and various gimmicks to put off the costs until after they left office. Servicing the debt became a bigger and bigger slice of the budget pie. Stakeholders who couldn't rely on the state used the ridiculously easy initiative process to pass unfunded spending mandates for themselves and all sorts of ballot-box budgeting. In good times, this uneasy balance worked... sort of. In even the most mild recessions, it would collapse.

That sets the stage for yesterday's horrendous budget deal, which closes a $26 billion dollar deficit with almost no new revenue, making steep cuts that amount to a reinvention of government's promises to its people, along with the usual gimmickry and a harsh, counter-productive set of raids on local government resources.

A local government official made a comment Monday afternoon, a few hours before the $25 billion deficit deal was reached, that seems to encapsulate everyone's feelings.

"As this budget hits the street today and people look at it," said San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon, "I think Californians are going to say, 'How did we get in this mess?'"

It relies on about $15.5 billion in cuts and $11 billion in, well, other stuff (more on that in a moment).

Almost two-thirds of the cuts are in K-12 education, colleges, and universities (though it also includes a one-time supplemental payment to K-12 and community colleges of $11.2 billion). Other sizeable cuts are in corrections ($1.2 billion), state worker salaries ($1.3 billion in the current furloughs) and Medi-Cal services ($1.3 billion). Welfare assistance, health care for low-income kids, and in-home support services (IHSS) would also see cuts.

Also cut: funding for state parks, though nowhere near the level Governor Schwarzenegger proposed in May. Legislative staffers say a few parks would close, and the ones in question will be picked by the

In addition, the state will steal borrow $4.3 billion from already strapped local governments, leading to probable bankruptcies and in all likelihood more expenses for the state to pick up. California workers will see an extra 10% of their state withholding taxes taken as an interest-free loan. The state will delay paychecks to state workers by one day, from June 30 to July 1, to push $1.3 billion into the next fiscal year. Governor Robot added non-budget related items like anti-fraud prevention measures to IHSS, so that when you try to access social services, you get fingerprinted like a common criminal. And one of the only revenue producers? A $100 million annual lease for offshore drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara, the first new drilling on the California coast since a massive oil spill in that area 40 years ago.

A lot of this stuff is illegal; almost all of it is immoral. And yet the system is designed to produce bad outcomes. The 2/3 requirement enforces the structural revenue gap, led by the comically low property taxes, in particular for commercial properties (many paying the same rate since 1978). State Democrats have shown no leadership to change the system for 31 years, leading to policies that kick the can down the road, at a higher eventual cost. And Republicans get their wish of drowning government in the bathtub. California is dead last in state spending in almost every meaningful category, and this profoundly damages the state's future.

I have become convinced that the only way out of this is through a Constitutional convention, the enactment of which has been suggested by some who are trying to build a movement for it. This is not a problem of personality but process. We could elect Gavin Newsom, Meg Whitman, Noam Chomsky or John Birch governor, and the structural problems will still be with us. The structural problems are so vast, so widespread, that only dealing with them completely, and returning the state to responsible governance, has any hope of succeeding. It's going to take a long slog, but ultimately, we have to Repair California or else we will continue this long march to nowhere.

California's problem, by the way, is by no means unique. In the US Senate we have a smaller undemocratic threshold, but only slightly so. The minority Republicans are fanatical here, but not so much more than the rump conservatives in Congress. We have almost no state political media, what does exist pushes meaningless bipartisanship masquerading as a solution, and the electorate pays little attention to politics anyway, unless a sideshow like the recall election takes place; not all that different at the national level. California has throughout its history been seen as a bellweather for national economic and social change. As Paul Krugman said in a column several months ago, "This could be America next."

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