Seeking the final Republican senate vote necessary to pass the stalled budget, attention has turned to Senator Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria and what might motivate him to vote for the budget package. Uncharacteristically for the usual way budget negotiations are done, Maldonado did not, to anyone’s knowledge, ask for a benefit for his senate district or a government job for himself or anyone else. Instead, he listed four items he said would improve governance in California.
Abel’s To Do List consists of the following:
- An Open Primary in which voters can choose any candidate running during a primary election regardless of political party.
- Stop paying lawmakers if the budget is not passed on time.
- Ban legislative pay raises and per diem increases in years the state budget is running a deficit.
- Remove pork spending from the current spending package.
Maldonado indicated that while all four measures were important government reforms he was not demanding that all four become part of the budget package.
Will legislative leaders support some of these measures to get that all-important final budget vote? The initial feeling was NO; it was beyond the legislators’ interests to support any of the measures.
It would seem nearly impossible to include a couple of the measures in a budget deal. Defining what is pork won’t be easy. Besides, some of that so called pork was used to secure other legislators’ budget votes so gaining Maldonado’s vote and losing another legislator’s vote does not help with the budget math.
Stopping pay for legislators if the budget is not done in time won’t find many votes under the capitol dome. Legislators say it is inappropriate to force lawmakers into taking actions that are bad for the state by cutting off their income. This one is a non-starter.
Banning pay raises and per diems during tough budget years may have a better chance. However, the California Citizens Compensation Commission controls legislative pay. Proposition 112 created the Commission, a 1990 measure put on the ballot by the legislature and approved by voters. The measure prohibited honoraria and limited gifts for legislators while allowing an outside body to set salaries.
Frankly, I think the legislators should set their own salaries and be subjected to the pressures of their constituents when they do so. And there is room for reform with the way per diems are doled out. However, this item alone seems hardly enough to change the dynamics of the budget fight.
Which brings us to the most intriguing item Maldonado mentioned: The Open Primary.
Maldonado claims this measure has nothing to do with his desire to seek statewide office. An open primary could benefit a legislator like Maldonado with a reputation of being a moderate, securing votes from both Democrats and Republicans in a primary election.
California voters already approved an open primary in 1996. However, the United States Supreme Court overturned the open primary law declaring that the California open primary violated a political party’s First Amendment right of association. But since that Supreme Court decision on the California open primary system, a subsequent Supreme Court ruling approved a slightly different open primary concept out of Washington State. So an open primary could pass legal muster.
Both major political parties oppose open primaries. Therefore, most legislators, as loyal party members, also oppose the concept so it would seem Maldonado’s proposal would not fly as part of the budget package.
However, I think the open primary proposal would be the most likely to get the nod if that’s what it takes to secure Maldonado’s crucial vote. An open primary would have to be put on the ballot with other pieces of the budget package. It would be an individual measure. Both major political parties would oppose the measure with full force, with the belief they would have the resources to defeat it.
There is a risk for the political parties, of course. The voters may support an open primary again as they did in 1996. Maldonado faces the possibility of offering his budget vote for a government reform that could be swamped by his opponents’ resources during the campaign. However, both sides might be willing to take the gamble that they will prevail with voters.
Of all the measures Maldonado proposed, the open primary is the change he really wants and putting that on the ballot may be enough to get the vote to end the budget stalemate.