The Budget Vote

California is one state Senate vote
away from having a balanced budget through what’s left of this year,
and 2009-2010 as well. Though how that vote will come is still playing
out, and it seems likely to happen sooner rather than later.

This is a good thing. For too long,
California’s uncertain finances have wreaked havoc on people
who work for the state, and those who depend on state services.

For state residents who don’t fall
into this category, the state’s fiscal woes had a more dislocated
effect, coming as they do on top (and partly because) of a housing meltdown
and job market deflation. The combined headlines might make us longtime
Californians, normally smug this time of year because of cold weather
elsewhere, a bit more modest. (Did I mention a drought, too?)

But the caveat for the budget’s final
creation is one that should alarm state government watchers who ponder
the long-term picture.

Chief among this is the precedent Sacramento
lawmakers have set: Budget by wish list.

The first came when legislative Democratic
leadership, in the majority party, agreed to a shopping list of policy
changes from their Republican counterparts.

That there was haggling over such topics like spending cuts and new taxes was to be expected — these are critical
issues that are part of every budget discussion, and they took on greater
significance this year.

But the deal both sides agreed on —
mind you, just to have an agreement that could be taken to the full
membership, not necessarily a final one — involved much more.

Republicans, who hold effective veto
power with a two-thirds vote requiring at least a few of them to cross
party lines, managed to get other goodies in that agreement as well.

They include the spending cap proposal
for voters and rollbacks on environmental law to speed along construction

Such provisions have been long sought-after
goals of California Republicans, and they have merit for discussion.
But they are only tangentially related to the state’s finances. And
for someone who points out that the state’s lack of a spending cap
makes its finances more unwieldy, it should be noted that a little over
three years ago, voters were given the chance to enact such a cap, and
decided against it.

Nonetheless, that was the agreement
that put the package before the full state Senate and Assembly. Where…it…promptly…stalled.

Reason being, there weren’t enough
Republican votes in the Senate for passage. That was even though the
Republican leadership had loaded the measure up with prime-cut steaks
for its red meat caucus.

Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria),
a moderate, said he couldn’t be one of the three critical GOP votes
for the budget’s passage. That is, unless Democrats took a look at
his personal wish list. Some of which had to do with the budget. Some
of which did not.

Democrats agreed to do so, and ultimately,
it’s likely that Maldonado will be the needed vote for passage. But
the precedent set here is worrisome.

Most years, passing the budget is
a difficult process, though this year may dwarf them all. And giving
a legislator – or a caucus – its druthers in return for votes could
bespeak future troubles.

Legislators, by virtue of being both
term limited and increasingly partisan, sometimes have interests and
desires different from the state’s residents as a whole. Not necessarily
worse, but different.

If every potentially recalcitrant legislator
can submit their own wish list in order to guarantee a budget vote,
a state already known for slow government could theoretically get slower,
something like sloth to snail speed.

Is there a better way? Willie Brown,
for one, might suggest that there is.

During a previous budget stall, Brown,
in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, said as Assembly Speaker,
he had a sure-fire method to get a needed vote during a protracted budget

Go to the legislator, he said, and
offer up some local benefits to smooth the way. Some police funding
here, a community center grant there.

Horse-trading? Unethical? Poor spending
choice? Perhaps, all three.

But better those, at relatively small
amounts, than giving government reform options to every lawmaker who’s
willing to get married to a budget deal, but not without a pre-nup.