Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have the same problem when it comes to offering solutions to California’s budget crisis:
His name is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Whatever you think of the current governor, Schwarzenegger made many, many attempts to deal with the state’s budget problems. In fact, the governor has tried so many different tactics that he succeeded – not in balancing the budget but in showing that there’s really no way to balance the budget under the current budget system.
What’s striking about listening to Brown and Whitman today are 1. That they sound so much alike when they talk about how to fix the budget and 2. Every specific thing they suggested is something that Schwarzenegger tried.
And when you suggest a budget strategy that Schwarzenegger tried, you are – by definition – suggesting a budget strategy that didn’t work.
Among the ideas that Brown and Whitman are proposing as new (and that Schwarzenegger himself tried):
-Jerry/Meg idea: Start budget negotiations far earlier. Schwarzenegger tried, particularly in the first term, to get the budget going faster. And in his second term, he succeeded – by getting a budget agreement months early, in February 2009. But getting a timely budget doesn’t mean you’ve balanced the budget, as that same agreement shows.
-Jerry idea: Personally engage the legislators, both leaders and non-leaders. This is what the smoking tent was all about. Schwarzenegger reached out to members of all kinds, particularly in the beginning. He called on their birthdays. He invited them on his plane. It didn’t work.
-Jerry idea: Meet and listen to concerns of groups most impacted by key budgetary decisions. Schwarzenegger has done this throughout. In his first term, he went and step further and made budget deals with unions, university systems and others impacted. But those deals fell apart under the pressure of budgetary realities. It’s good to talk to people-but that doesn’t make it any easier to budget in California’s failed system.
-Meg idea: Call for part-time legislature. Schwarzenegger has floated that for years. But what difference would it make? A part-time legislature doesn’t produce more revenues or cut spending more.
-Jerry/Meg idea: Use the bully pulpit to pressure legislators. Schwarzenegger did this all the time – he still does – and is often called a bully. (When things are calmer, he’s most ignored). It’s a fine tactic, but the bully pulpit doesn’t change any constitutional spending mandates or tax limitations.
-Jerry/Meg idea: Stop budget "gimmicks". Schwarzenegger has decried gimmicks and put out Armageddon-style budget proposals that would show what it would really take to balance the budgets. It didn’t work. The public still believes it can have more services with fewer taxes.
-Jerry/Meg idea: Put teeth behind legal budget deadlines. Schwarzenegger has been calling for that since before he first took office. A proposal that’s going nowhere.
-Jerry idea: Create a rainy day fund. Schwarzenegger convinced voters to create such a fund in 2004 and has budgeted money for it. The state has other funds and reserve requirements. But they haven’t worked, in part because they’re not well designed.
-Meg idea (Jerry sort of too): Pension reform. Schwarzenegger has been fighting for pension reform throughout his tenure; bringing this issue into the budget has made negotiating budgets more difficult, not less difficult. Witness this year’s failure to pass a budget.
-Jerry/Meg idea: get more money from the feds. A frequent theme of Schwarzenegger, who has had a few very limited successes on this front.
-Meg idea: A spending cap. California already has a spending cap. Schwarzenegger sought several different caps. He got little traction with such proposals in the legislature, and voters turned down proposals at the ballot in 2005 and 2009.
-Meg idea: Reduce the state workforce. Schwarzenegger has done as much of this as he could get away with legally. And with the courts blocking his attempts at even furloughs, there wasn’t much he could get away with.
-Jerry idea: Put together a tax review commission. Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders did this, and, as Brown’s own budget policy paper acknowledges, there was no consensus.
-Meg idea: Defend the two-thirds requirements for budget and taxes. Schwarzenegger has defended two-thirds too, to his own detriment. Mathematical news flash: it’s harder to get two-thirds votes than it is to get majority votes. And since there are more legislators to bribe… er… convince, two-thirds votes end up costing taxpayers more.
What California needs – and what Brown and Whitman, like Schwarzenegger before them, don’t have the courage to support – is a Great Unwinding of the entire budget system. Brown and Whitman and Schwarzenegger all propose new whips and chains for the great budget ratchet. What’s needed is to remove many of these rules and restrictions so that legislative majorities can make decisions – and be held accountable for bad budgets at the polls.