As state mottos go, California’s "Eureka" just doesn’t cut
What about exchanging it for "We’ll see you in court"? Or
maybe "Of course I’m going to sue." Then there’s always Yogi Berra’s "It ain’t
over till it’s over."
Welcome to California, where nothing is final until the guys
in the black robes sing.
And considering the way the latest state budget guts court
funding, those concerts could be a long time coming.
Once upon a time, California was a place where the Legislature
and the governor could argue out the details of the state budget, with one side
giving a little here and the other side accepting some adjustments there until
everyone agreed on a spending plan that they might not love, but could at least
A "Eureka" moment, let’s call it.
But when you combine the current hyper-partisanship brought
on at least in part by term limits with a budget pie that’s shrinking year by
year, there’s not much room for "half a loaf" agreements.
Instead, every political fight is a death match, with the
bloodied losers crying foul and vowing to reverse their defeats in the courts
or at the ballot box.
Look at this year’s budget, for example. Cities are suing to
block Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to shut down local redevelopment agencies and
redirect a hefty chunk of their tax money to the state.
Then there’s state Sen. Ted Gaines’ effort to put a
referendum on the ballot to stop the governor from assessing a new $150 a year
fire-fighting fee in rural communities. Or Amazon’s plan to put up its own
referendum to keep the state from collecting sales tax on its on-line
transactions in the state (which already are supposed to be taxed, but that’s
And the 2010-11 budget isn’t even a month old. It doesn’t
take a crystal ball to know that there are groups out there just waiting to
file legal action against budget actions like those court cuts or reductions in
It’s not just budget battles, either. Both Republican and
Democratic groups have lined up to sue the state’s new Citizens’ Redistricting
Commission over what they say are patently unfair lines drawn for the state’s
legislative and congressional districts.
Never mind that the commission hasn’t even released its
final maps yet. That’s a detail that doesn’t matter when the partisan trumpets
There’s nothing especially new about this. Former Republican
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent plenty of time in court over his efforts to
trim the budget deficit by cutting programs, furloughing state workers and
cutting state salaries.
Heck, Schwarzenegger even found himself sued by state Sen.
Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem, in 2009 over standard line
item vetoes he made to a budget that Steinberg had voted for.
Schwarzenegger won some of those court battles and lost
others and it’s a safe bet that Brown’s legal record will be just as mixed. But
every one of those lawsuits takes time and money to fight and those are two
things running short in the Golden State.
And every suit that’s lost blows another hole in the already
leaky budget. If the courts overturn the redevelopment ban, for example, it
erases about $2 billion California is depending on to pay its bills this year.
Political disputes over state spending are as old as
California and, human nature being what it is, they’re never going away.
But in recent years politics has become a blood sport, with
tough partisan struggles no longer viewed as a battle of well-intentioned, but
opposing, points of view. Instead, those clashes are seen as give-no-quarter
contests between good and evil.
Reasonable people can differ, but only if each side is
willing to accept the other as reasonable.
The nastiness that’s a growing part of California politics
pops up in even the most unexpected places.
The California State Fair in Sacramento typically provides
the state’s counties a chance to do a bit of bragging, putting up exhibits
showing why they have the best lakes, fishing, citrus fruit, milk cows,
almonds, field crops or baseball teams, as the San Francisco exhibit insists.
It’s all in good humor and generally aimed at a family crowd
that looking for a day of fun in the sun, without political lectures.
But San Joaquin County played it different this year. Sure,
there’s a sample of their crops and the usual claims about the area’s
agricultural wonders. But high above the flowers, watermelons and jugs of olive
oil, swings the figure of Alice, of Looking Glass fame.
As she swings, panels slowly turn, focusing on "bumbling
budget wars," "decreased job markets," "burdensome regulations" and "uneducated
"Just as Alice sees images in a looking glass that confuse
her," a plaque on the exhibit states, "our farmers look at a distorted state
government mirror, illuminating ever-changing legislation and
It won a gold ribbon.
John Wildermuth is a
longtime writer on California politics.