Out of the Budget Hole, Into the Briar Patch

Nothing, they say, concentrates the mind like pain. That seems to have been the strategy of both sides in California’s tortuous budget battle.

Sacramento Republicans hung tough behind their “No new taxes” pledge, looking to force Democrats to thwack their key constituencies with draconian cuts in education and social services.
The better to discourage Democratic voters and rally the GOP’s conservative base, going into the 2012 elections.

Sacramento Democrats, on the other hand, appeared to be fighting with each other. For the first time, in modern history at least, a California Governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, vetoed an entire state budget—and one crafted and passed by his own party’s legislators.

But, voila!

A deal on a new budget plan was magically cut by the governor and the Democratic legislative majority on Monday.

It relies on “unanticipated revenues” of $4 billion to ease the state’s fiscal crunch, but "triggers" mid-year cuts to K-12 schools and higher education, public safety programs and In-Home Supportive Services for the elderly and disabled, if that money doesn’t materialize.

Republicans were exchanging high fives for holding out and forcing the Democrats to adopt a “no new taxes” budget, and were gleefully painting the legislative majority as irresponsible--waving, as Senate Budget Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) put it, "a wand that Harry Potter would be proud to wield."

But Republicans might want to think twice about taking a victory lap just yet.

Our wily governor and his legislative allies may have set the up GOP lawmakers to “own” the almost-inevitable, painful cuts in education and public safety—cuts that are not likely to sit well with California’s prized swing voters.

With the “top-two” primary and new legislative seats drawn by an independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission coming into play, California’s electoral equation has changed.

If what the initiatives’ proponents wanted to happen—more moderate candidates running in more competitive districts, loosening the grip of ideological polarization on legislators—really does happen, hard-line GOP conservatives who blocked funding for public services could find themselves at political risk.

Pain tends to concentrate the minds of angry Californians, too.

It’s no accident that Governor Brown and Democratic legislative leaders used a Monday press conference to pummel the minority party.

Right off the bat, Brown complained that he couldn’t get GOP votes to reach the 2/3 necessary to raise revenues needed to save the state from drastic cuts.

Therefore, Brown insisted, “we’ll have to look…at an initiative, to create the fiscal stability that was available last March, but was rejected by the other party.”

(Ironically, Republicans blocked a special election on extending taxes in 2011, when lower turnout might have favored the GOP. That has allowed Democrats to target the November 2012 General Election, when turnout is likely to be higher and—you guessed it—more moderate and Democratic.)

In addition, California’s business community may also be quaking at the prospect of a push by powerful public employee unions to take new revenues out of their corporate hides.
Remember that old cliché, “Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it"?

The Democrats are not out of the fiscal thicket by any means, but, by their budget intransigence (or as GOP Assembly leader Connie Conway’s spokesperson described it, “Republican resolve” against taxes), Republicans could find themselves trapped in a political briar patch of their own making.

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