There was only one sour note when Democrat Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate’s boss, bounced Republican Tom Berryhill from his post as chairman of the Senate Food and Agriculture Committee last week for telling reporters that the state budget “is really not our (Republicans’) problem.”
It should have been Republican Bob Dutton, the Senate minority leader, who slapped Berryhill upside the head.
The absolute last thing California Republicans need right now is to be seen as the party that really doesn’t care about the budget, the politicians who are perfectly content to sit back and just say no to whatever the Democrats come up with.
Picture Rome, Nero and a fiddle.
Ever since he was elected in November, Gov. Jerry Brown has been warning Californians that the only way out of the state’s financial mess is for everyone to pull together.
Brown hasn’t yet sold state residents — or legislators — on his plan to balance the budget with a semi-equal combination of deep budget cuts and voter-approved tax and fee extensions. But he’s done a fine job of leading the parade of California voters who believe it’s way past time for Sacramento politicians to put aside their partisan gamesmanship and make hard, realistic choices about the state’s financial future.
And then Berryhill comes out of a meeting between the governor and Republican senators last Tuesday and essentially tells waiting reporters that it’s really just politics as usual all over again.
There’s no reason for Republicans to submit their own version of a balanced state budget, the Modesto senator said, since “the Democrats own this and we think that they should be giving us what the solutions are.”
And it doesn’t take a political genius to add what Berryhill left unspoken: “so we can vote against their plan.”
Of course that let Steinberg dump Berryhill from his committee chairmanship and solemnly intone – courtesy of a letter to the Senate Rules Committee — that all senators “have a duty, regardless of party or philosophy, to actively engage in the serious work necessary to address the challenges confronting California.”
And the not-so-hidden subtext Steinberg would love voters to take from the set-to with Berryhill: “Democrats are serious about the budget and Republicans aren’t.”
The thing is, Berryhill wasn’t wrong. When voters passed Prop. 25 in November and eliminated the two-thirds vote requirement to pass the state budget, it meant the majority Democrats could push through a budget plan without ever talking to a Republican. They got the power, so now they get the credit or take the blame.
In a normal year, GOP legislators could sit back and enjoy the sight of an important Democratic supporter like Lou Paulson of the California Professional Firefighters complaining about Brown’s plan to cut the number of firefighters on Cal Fire engine crews. Or listen to a big-name Democrat like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa argue angrily that the governor’s attempt to help balance the budget by eliminating local redevelopment agencies “is a non-starter.” And then there’s the spectacle of Democratic legislators sheepishly trying to explain why they now back the same budget cuts they railed against last year when it was Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who proposed them.
Unfortunately for Republicans, this isn’t a normal year. Brown has raised the ante by making the budget Job One, proposing cuts Democrats hate and then using his clout to push legislative leaders to move them quickly through the process.
And when Brown announces that he’s cutting his own office budget by 25 percent, eliminating state departments and taking back 48,000 state-issued cell phones – including his own – he’s making easy-to-understand, voter-friendly gestures that have the effect of telling legislators “OK, now it’s your turn.”
So for Republicans, this can’t be a time to sit on the sidelines and refuse to play. They don’t have to like the Democratic plan for a June election to extend billions in taxes. They may hate the fact that not enough has been done about pension reform. And they absolutely should insist that the governor say exactly what he plans to do if voters reject his tax plan.
But they’ve got to be in the game, bringing out their own proposals and forcing Brown and the Democrats to prove their call for a bi-partisan approach to solving California’s budget woes is more than rhetorical.
Californians are past wanting a Democratic answer or a Republican answer to the state’s long-running budget woes. They want things fixed now and aren’t going to look kindly on politicians they don’t think are working toward that solution.
John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.