California GOP takes aim at spending

May 23, 2011


— In 1967, five years after California became the most populous state, novelist Wallace Stegner said California — energetic, innovative, hedonistic — was America, “only more so.” Today, this state’s budget crisis is like the nation’s, only more so. Bob Dutton is an island of calm in the eye of the storm — which should agitate Gov. Jerry Brown.

Dutton came to California from Nebraska at age 19 in 1969 and now is leader of Republicans in the state Senate. He contentedly says his caucus is “almost like a Chamber of Commerce board of directors.” Its members are mostly from small businesses, as he is. Because they are term-limited, they cannot make a career here, so they might as well follow their small — well, smaller — government inclinations.

They have it in their power to compel Gov. Jerry Brown to confront the public employees unions that have gained so much power over the state’s budget. All they need to do, Dutton notes, “Is just say ‘no’ to more taxes.” This is so because Brown needs two Republicans in each house of the Legislature to raise taxes (actually, to reinstate for five years some taxes and fees that will have lapsed by July 1), or to authorize a November referendum that could reinstate them.

Brown’s plan for balancing the budget is to close about half of the deficit with reductions and fund shifts already approved, and the rest by tax increases. Republican resistance to the taxes is explained by facts provided by Troy Senik, writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal:

“Californians already labor under sales-tax rates usually reserved for states without income taxes (at 8.25 percent, the nation’s highest) and sharply progressive income-tax rates usually reserved for states without sales taxes (the state’s top rate is 10.55 percent, and it doesn’t allow you to deduct your federal taxes, as some states with income taxes do).”

Those tax levels are surely related to these demographic facts: Between 2000 and 2010, Los Angeles gained fewer people than in any decade since the 1890s, and Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have the slowest growth rates since the end of Spanish rule. For the first time since 1920, the Census did not award California even one additional congressional seat.

California’s Constitution makes a balanced budget mandatory. Sort of. For more than a decade it has been “balanced” only by creative accounting — a fact that should give pause to conservatives, in Washington and elsewhere, who are eager to constitutionalize fiscal policy by putting a balanced budget requirement in the U.S. Constitution. California’s is one of the world’s longest Constitutions — if a document that has been amended more than 500 times by direct democracy can be said to truly constitute a political system.

It controls much of state spending. For example, about 40 percent of the budget is dedicated to education. The Legislature has limited or no control over as much as 85 percent of revenues.

Brown knew all this last year when he campaigned for governor on a principle he articulated when running for president in 1976: “A little vagueness goes a long way in this business.” Brown is, however, a veteran practitioner of the rhetoric of reform. A transcript from “Meet the Press,” Oct. 5, 1975:

“Mr. Will: Governor, you expressed an interesting concept of representation when you said that you wanted to be governor of the 54 percent of the people who didn’t vote last year. How do you fashion a program for people who express no mandate?

“Gov. Brown: To stand up to the special pleaders who are encamped, I should say encircling the state capitol, and to see through their particular factional claims to the broad public interest.”

The most muscular pleaders are the public employees unions. In 1978, Brown conferred on government employees the right to unionize and bargain collectively. In 2010, their unions fueled the campaign that restored him to the governor’s office. Thus does the liberal merry-go-round spin.

Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution notes that California’s four most influential Democrats are Brown, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who are 73, 77, 70 and 71, respectively: “No other state’s political ruling class is as gray, a terrific irony for youth-worshipping California.” Dutton and other relatively anonymous Republican legislators can, by being constructively obdurate (“no”), shake the foundations of reactionary liberalism — the regulatory state that seemed so right in the septuagenarians’ formative years, a half-century ago.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years ago

"In 1978, Brown conferred on government employees the right to unionize and bargain collectively."

All this means is that they have the right to a collective voice that can't just be ignored. The state still controls the treasury. If the state wants to make cutbacks, it still can-- collective bargaining means just has to do it in an open and transparent way. But that's not the Republican way.

jhawkinsf 7 years ago

The state controls a diminishing percentage of the treasury. As a long time California resident, I witnessed a very different form of governing. The use of voter initiatives known as propositions has had unintended consequences. Voters have mandated spending in certain areas, such as the "3 strikes" proposal. They have voted to limit taxation, the famous "Prop. 13". Combined, this limits the amount of discretionary spending available to the legislature. Unfortunately, the largest part of the discretionary funding pie is education. With mandates to spend here and there, and with mandates to not tax here and there, the legislature has few options. It's really a crazy way to run a state. I said in a previous thread, this is not a left/right thing. It's not a Democrat/Republican thing and it's not a liberal/conservative thing. It's a voter thing. We often say that the voters want the government to provides things, we just don't want to pay for them. It's that, on steroids.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years ago

You make valid points, but eliminating govt. employee unions and collective bargaining won't change that.

jhawkinsf 7 years ago

A practical result of the diminished size of the discretionary portion of the budget is that anyone who successfully lobbies government, either business or union, has a disproportionately greater influence than one might expect if the discretionary portion of the budget were larger. And in this case, the government sector unions have been very successful. I'm not saying if that is good or bad, it's just the way it is.

jafs 7 years ago

Sorry, but that's just not true.

"3 strike" laws aren't liberal, they're conservative.

jhawkins' posts are interesting, as they contain some real information from somebody that lived there for a while, and he concludes it isn't a liberal/conservative thing, or a D/R thing.

jafs 7 years ago

Will can tell whatever stories he likes - that doesn't make them true.

Read jh's posts - he describes how the government is structured, and how these things have come to pass.

jafs 7 years ago

I think it is you who are seeing things through ideology.

I just read the posts, and looked at them as objectively as I can.

jafs 7 years ago

see jh's post immediately below this one.

jhawkinsf 7 years ago

BornAgain... I agree with some of what you say, but disagree with other things. You guessed correctly when you said many are fed up with extremely high taxes and are leaving. I did. And as a business owner, I took my jobs with me. The power of the unions is killing the state. Illegal immigration is turning parts of the state into a third world country, one the would be completely unrecognizable by many Americans. But I need to make one very large disagreement with you. That is the issue of Prop. 13, a darling of the right. It has contributed as much as anything to the decline of California. Capping the taxes on Grandma's house sounded good, who wants the little old lady to lose her house to increases in property taxes when she is on a fixed income. However, Prop. 13 also set in stone the property taxes of businesses, some very large. They haven't seen a property tax hike in decades and according to Prop. 13, they never will. Because school funding throughout the land is based largely on property taxes, what was once a model of education has become something I wouldn't and didn't send my child to.
If you want to blame the left for unions, immigration, etc., fine. But the right has to own up to Prop. 13.

jhawkinsf 7 years ago

Proponents of Prop. 13, when it was being debated said not a word about schools or redistribution of wealth. Property values were soaring. Little old ladies on fixed incomes were losing their homes, so they said. We need to protect grandma. And they put that little thing in there about businesses never having their property taxes raised. Never is a long time. If that's a response to liberal policies, then it's a knee jerk and totally irresponsible response. Over the years, California has responded to the budget shortfall by raising taxes and fees on a wide variety of things. But the money goes here, there and everywhere, except schools. Each new fee and each new tax helps feed a new and growing bureaucracy, so the tax collection tends to be inefficient. The numbers of state employees expand, to service the bureaucracy, but the numbers of teachers decline. If you're saying Prop 13 was a reaction to liberal policies, fine. But then it was an ill conceived and knee jerk reaction.

jafs 7 years ago

It's not a requirement for liberals that they all agree on everything.

Is that a requirement for conservatives? Do you agree on everything with all other conservative folks?

Or, should I use your language "cons"?

I think it is both cliched and incorrect.

jafs 7 years ago


That should end this conversation, I would hope.

beatrice 7 years ago

I guess the Republican who had been the head of the state for much of the past decade was too busy messing with the help to pay attention to the budget -- better blame the liberals.

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