Earth to Sen. Berryhill: No One Owns the Budget

State Senator Tom Berryhill, a Republican from Modesto, last week was removed as chairman of the California Senate's food and agriculture committee.

His sin? Telling the Sacramento Bee that, now that Democrats can pass a budget with a majority vote instead of a 2/3 vote (a change approved by voters in November as Prop 25), balancing the budget is no longer a concern of Republicans.

The budget, Berryhill said, "is really not our problem. ... The Democrats own this."

The man who removed Berryhill, the Senate's leader and top Democrat Darrell Steinberg, explained that balancing the budget was a duty of every senator. In other words, the whole senate owns the budget.

Both Steinberg and Berryhill were wrong.

No one owns the budget, in any political or fiscal sense.

The budget is an orphan.

How's that?

Put simply, no party is accountable for the budget. Yes, the Democrats can pass a budget on a majority vote now. But Democrats can't decide all that much about spending, since voter-approved formulas and other constitutional restrictions govern so much spending. Two-thirds vote requirements also govern education spending, which is roughly half the budget. And when it comes to the taxes to pay for spending, Republicans still have leverage under the 2/3 requirements for tax increases and fee increases to block the revenues paid for spending. So Democrats can't balance the budget without Republicans. The result: both parties behave more responsibly than they would if one party or the other could craft a budget itself. And when the parties compromise, they invariably do so through borrowing and other gimmicks to cover up the fact that Democrats want higher spending and Republicans want lower taxes.

Balancing the budget thus is not about cutting equal amounts of spending and raising equal amounts of taxes, as Gov. Brown has suggested. It's not really about specific levels of taxation or spending at all. Fixing the budget requires the big, hard work of fixing this system of voter-approved mandates and two-thirds requirements. And making it possible for the majority party to own the budget -- and then redesigning the election system so voters can kick that party out of office if they don't like the budgets they see.

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