I guess the kindest way to put this is that we have a tone-deaf legislature. Out of town for a few days, I came back to read that the Assembly leaders were attempting to justify pay raises for assembly staff while the state deficit is growing. On top of that, other legislators were proposing targeted fee and tax increases at a time that the tax question is weighing down attempts at budgetary reform.

Now Speaker Karen Bass and Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines have cancelled the pay raises. Bass said the pay raises caused a distraction from the discussion about the May ballot measures. No kidding. But that doesn’t change the fact that legislators somehow lose touch with the public they represent.

Bass and Villines argued at first that many of the staffers who received increases have not seen a pay raise in a number of years. With the budget problems of the last couple of years, that is appropriate. Many taxpayers haven’t seen a pay raise, either. On top of that they have been asked to pay more in taxes to keep the government solvent. While the pay raises are a small part of the overall budget, the symbolism was of monstrous proportions.

The Assembly leaders say that they have done of good job of paring back Assembly spending so the raises should not offend. Isn’t there at least an $8-billion dollar hole still remaining in the budget, according to the Legislative Analyst? The Assembly should expect to do more paring. A pay raise was going in the wrong direction.

Assembly member Jim Beall wants to raise the tax on alcoholic beverages and call it a fee. This effort is on top of the tax increase proposals on tobacco put forth by Senator Alex Padilla and Assembly member Tom Torlakson. I already opined on this site that raising those taxes undermines the budget reform effort on the May ballot. New tax and fee proposals just give ammunition to those opposed to the budget reforms that tax floodgates will open even if the May ballot measures pass.

Worse is the attempt with the Beall bill to fashion a long time tax into a fee. I fear this is just the beginning of creative manipulation in seeking revenue with a simple majority vote to avoid the two-thirds vote constitutional requirement to raise taxes.

Raising staff salaries in the time of fiscal crisis and trying to beat the system by calling a tax a fee while at the same time trying to convince voters to extend taxes in exchange for budgetary reform is more than tone-deaf. Some legislators apparently cannot hear the music at all. Good for Bass and Villines for cancelling the raises. But why were they even considered in the first place given the state’s financial situation and the quest for important reforms?

I still believe a spending limit is key to getting our fiscal house in order and the rare opportunity to put a limit in place is now. It should not be sacrificed to political blunders. In fact, these actions by the legislature are another reminder that taxpayers need spending protection. But it will be tough to convince the voters when they are hearing the same old song about pay raises and fee increases when they are asked to sacrifice.