Dems Try to Scare Reps With Targeted Cuts

Frustrated and stuck because of the broken budget process, State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and the state senate's top Democrat, Darrell Steinberg, argued this week for making budget cuts that would fall disproportionately on Republican legislative districts. This makes sense, they suggested, because Republican legislators are refusing to vote for temporary tax increases -- or even to put temporary tax increases on the ballot.

This is a ploy, and one strongly suspects that even they don't quite believe in it. For one thing, targeted cuts to Republican districts will hurt not just Republicans but also Democrats -- since millions of Democrats live in Republican districts. So Sacramento's Democratic leadership is proposing to punish Democrats in the name of punishing Republicans. And these particular Democrats live in inland California, one of the most economically depressed places in the country.

Steinberg, in comments after a speech, made clear that he would cut services that offer conveniences to adults -- not items that fund services that children or the vulnerable depend upon. "When it comes to kids or the vulnerable, I wouldn't want to make distinctions between who lives in a Democratic district and who lives in a Republican district, but when it comes to sort of basic services, convenience services that affect adults... I have an open mind," he said.

Steinberg aide Nathan Barankin told me via email Wednesday night: "I don't know anybody who thinks this is a good idea. The only good idea is passing Brown's budget or something like it with revenues. The problem is there are no good ideas on how to implement $15 billion in additional, permanent cuts in [General Fund] spending." As to the question of cuts hurting Democrats, "yes, big cuts to Republican districts would hurt millions of Democrats. $15 billion in cuts to all districts also would hurt millions of Democrats. Which glass do you want to drink from, they both have poison."

This lack of good options is precisely why policymakers, including Brown, should make their first priority budget and constitutional reform. Getting California out of this perpetual budget mess requires eliminating the state's sea of fiscal rules, including the two-thirds supermajorities, so that the majority party in the legislature has control of -- and thus accountability for -- the return, comprehensive reform would require an election system that gives the minority party -- in this case the Republicans -- a new election system that gives them a chance to compete for votes everywhere, and give the party a real chance of winning a majority in the legislature.

Ironically, the best way to create such a system would be to elect multiple legislators to elect each region, in elections using proportional representation. That is, the state could be split up into eight regional districts, with the legislative seats being divided proportionally depending on what percentage of the vote each party got. This would mean that there would be Democratic and Republican legislators representing each region of the state. Perhaps that would be a boost to unity in the legislature -- and it would end talk of punishing some regions at the expense of others.

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