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They Work Hard for Our Money

by Mytheos Holt, published

A minor legislative scandal has rocked California, and from the looks of it, all that pro-Proposition 1F sentiment wasn't just sentimental. Despite the pleasant 60 degree weather, the winter of California's discontent came rushing to Sacramento after Speaker Karen Bass and Minority Leader Mike Villines proposed pay increases for their staffers numbering close to half-a-million dollars.

If those pay freezes for California legislators didn't seem appropriate a few weeks ago, it's worth betting that most of California's voters feel like supporting them now, and nobody can blame them.

What may be in greater danger is the campaign behind Proposition 1A, which both Villines and Bass support, along with Governor Schwarzenegger. 1A, which proposes a temporary tax increase and a spending cap on California's budget, is virulently opposed by California's grassroots, and those politicians campaigning for it can be easily stereotyped as establishment Sacramento figures who have lost touch with the concerns of the average voter. One Fresno area blogger made as much clear, writing "The backlash to the pay hikes was so fierce that Bass rescinded the raises faster than Simon Cowell's head spun after hearing Susan Boyle sing. But Bass' initial decision shows how out of sync legislative leaders are with the people who pay the tax bills."

Of course, the errant legislators in question have done their best to repair the damage. Both Bass and Villines have rescinded the pay hikes, with Bass herself saying "she was concerned that the increases, which averaged 5%, had become a distraction from the campaign she is leading for approval of six budget-related ballot measures in the May 19 special election."

A distraction? With all due respect, Madame Speaker, buying a new pair of shoes is a distraction. This is self-sabotage. A simple statement of regrets, a few press releases and behind-closed-doors promises to the staffers that they'll get their pay once the pitchfork wielding voters go away is not going to cut it this time - California's people are very clearly out for blood, and many analysts have already concluded that they want to see some real contrition. According to the Times, "Despite the revocation of the raises, some political observers said significant damage had been done to the campaign led by Villines, Bass and the governor for the May propositions intended to help balance the state budget." Or, to quote Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg, this is a potential "nail in the coffin."

This is especially true given the situation with respect to taxes in California. The Speaker herself has made a great deal of the fact that 50% of California's revenue comes from 144,000 taxpayers. That's 144,000 people out of a population of 36,553,215, or four tenths of a percent of California's population. It's even less than half of California's Native American population of just under 400,000 people. To her credit, and to the consternation of liberal bloggers, Speaker Bass has decried the injustice of this state of affairs. However, when her staff is getting more than three times as many dollars as there are people paying for them in raises, that sort of egalitarian sentiment tends to get substantially muted, meaning that Proposition 1A has now become that much of a harder sell for those who want it to pass.

So much the better for certain elements of California's political system, but 1A's failure could mean even harsher budgetary medicine for California's people. There's little question that Bass and Villines will survive this little squabble intact - what's more concerning is whether they'll have any taxpayers left after all is said and done.

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