AFT Guild

California budget agreement was no compromise

Marty Hittelman

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The governor has signed a budget for the state that does nothing to support the long-term stability of vital California services. Such an unfortunate and shortsighted budget deal is the result of Republican intransigence and Democratic lack of resolve. It is also a recipe for damaging California's future.

Most press accounts are talking about the "compromise budget." A compromise occurs when two or more parties meet somewhere in the middle. This budget deal doesn't strike such a balance. It is simply a capitulation to the Republican legislators' inflexible demand that the budget leave unaddressed the state's underlying lack of adequate revenues.

Republican Assembly leader Mike Villines said, "We came out of our ideological corners to pass a budget compromise that restores funding to vital services depended upon by our state's most vulnerable population." This is patently untrue. The Democrats compromised when they offered a budget that, along with its proposal to tax people who make over $300,000 a year (worth $6 billion a year), included large cuts to public education and health and welfare. The governor came out of his corner and offered, along with his massive cuts and budget-control measures, a sales tax increase (also $6 billion).

The Republicans offered nothing except their mantra, "No new taxes." The budget deal passed by the Legislature this week is the product of this Great Refusal by the Republicans to compromise in the slightest, coupled with the Democrats' nervous recognition that as the clock ticked and state payments stayed in the treasury, health clinics were closing, disabled people were going hungry, and community college students were dropping out of school.

The budget is also the product of the Democrats' realization that their majority is meaningless - that democracy, as most Americans understand it, doesn't hold in a state that requires a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. Only two other states require such a supermajority to pass a budget, and the past three months should supply all the reasons we need for joining the other 47 in rejecting this undemocratic mechanism.

We understand the sense of urgency and frustration that led the Legislative Democrats to capitulate, but that doesn't excuse the result. The budget, as finally approved, cuts public education by $3 billion, imposes hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts on the UC and CSU systems, and unnecessarily enlarges the governor's executive powers. It also, after an initial small reduction of two corporate tax loopholes, opens them wider than ever, which will cost the state billions of dollars yearly.

The California Federation of Teachers believes there are two necessary approaches to the state budget conundrum. The first is progressive tax policies that ask those with the most (the wealthiest 1 percent of income earners, people who make more than $300,000 per year) to pay a bit more, and to close corporate tax loopholes. Polls consistently show that Californians are willing to accept either tax proposal - this progressive option, or a regressive sales tax - rather than borrow or cut. But these reasonable actions to preserve public education and other social services were not available to the legislative majority.

That leads us to the second answer: Get rid of the two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to pass a budget. We elect legislators to do their jobs with majority rule. The archaic two-thirds requirement allows a minority to abrogate the democratic will of the people.

That's a necessary future reform. Californians who rely on state funding and services - 8 million students, the elderly, the poor, the disabled - couldn't wait for that. The Republicans, despite their smokescreen rhetoric about "compromise," couldn't have cared less about the pain they were inflicting. In fact, that was their biggest weapon: confidence the Democrats would eventually sign just about any budget to get desperately needed services flowing again.

We need a budget based on adequate revenues, not rhetoric. We failed to get it this year. Perhaps, if these lessons have been learned, we will get it next year.

Marty Hittelman is the president of the California Federation of Teachers.