By Steven T. Jones
Democrats in the California Legislature say they’re ready to take the gloves off and start aggressively attacking the longstanding “no new taxes” pledge that their Republican colleagues signed with American for Tax Reform, which threatens to shut down the deficit-plagued state government.
“Every Republican has signed a pledge to someone who wants to drown government in a bathtub, Grover Norquist. So nothing will happen until we rip up those pledges,” Sen. Mark Leno told me, noting the devastating combination of that pledge and the two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget in California, which only two other states have. That margin is just three Republicans in each the Assembly and Senate. “Six human beings are bringing us to our knees.”
“No matter how nice the Republican next to me is, or how gay friendly, they’re doctrinaire and they have everyone by the cojones,” Assembly member Tom Ammiano told me.
Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill yesterday put out a statement saying, “Raising taxes doesn’t solve the underlying problem of California’s budget, which is the state spends more than it takes in.” I’m awaiting return calls from both Cogdill’s office and the ATR, but Cogdill’s statement is simply untrue on its face. Raising taxes does indeed address the problem of the state spending more than it takes in.
Leno called the tax pledge “childish and irresponsible,” and akin to Democrats saying they won’t consider any spending cuts, which they wouldn’t do (except, perhaps, to get Republicans to bargain in good faith). Nonetheless, every Republican in the Legislature has signed it. “What kind of honest negotiations can there be when they’ve signed that pledge,” Leno said.
He has reached out to CEOs and business leaders to have them try to talk some sense into the Republicans. Ironically, despite the Republicans rationalizing their pledge as not wanting to hurt economic growth, the collapse of the bond market, $40 billion deficit that California faces over the next 18 month, and the budget impasse threaten to cut off all state spending and send the already weakened economy into a nose dive. In fact, President-elect Barack Obama has proposed increased government spending on infrastructure as an economic stimulus plan, similar to how FDR pulled the country out of the Great Depresssion.
Leno said that even the Chambers of Commerce in San Francisco and Los Angeles are advocating for a reinstatement of the vehicle license fee, something that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has voiced openness to even though his crusade against it helped sweep him into office five years ago. The Legislative Analyst’s Office figures show the lack of a VLF has cost the state more than $37 billion since it was repealed.
The budget situation is so desperate the California legislative leaders today traveled to Washington D.C. to ask Congress for a bailout. That offered a glimmer of hope, yet on the state front, negotiations between the Governor’s Office and Legislation Republicans collapsed amid angry back and forth accusations.
“There is a failure of leadership on Arnold’s part,” Ammiano said. “I’m not giving [Mayor Gavin] Newsom an A+, but he at least came to the board.”
Ammiano believes that San Francisco will be able to work out its budget woes, as painful as they may be. “There has to be transparency and everyone at the table, then you’ll get a budget,” he said of the city. But at the state level, the stakes are higher and the current stalemate more intractable. “I think the state’s road is very, very difficult, and the city’s road is very difficult.”