July 3, 2003
By the time you read this, our state's budget crisis will already have a solution. It may not be official, it may not be complete, but it will be in the works. And you can credit Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) for that.
Issa is the state legislator who has launched the recall drive against Gov. Gray Davis. Many people, not just Democrats, think the idea is cynical and debilitating. This week, Democratic businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad joined Republicans like Intel founder Arthur Rock and venture capitalist John Doerr in writing a letter to the Los Angeles Times opposing the recall.
If they can agree on anything, the letter writers said, it's that ousting a sitting governor who has committed no crime in the midst of a terrible budget crisis is bad for California and bad for democracy. Why punish Davis for California's problems, say the Democrats. And why punish California for Davis' problems, say the anti-recall Republicans.
The pro-recall Republicans are following the playbook of Newt Gingrich. They have yet to figure out a way to solidify state power, so, like the Young Turks in the 1994 Congress, they are setting fire to the house hoping the voters will call on them to put it out. It worked fabulously well for Gingrich in the short term. But President Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Gingrich, and now, just a few years later, the former House speaker is on Comedy Central hawking his B-list novel. Be careful what you wish for.
Along those lines, one of the unintended consequences of the recall campaign is that it will motivate a solution to this year's budget crisis. In other words, Issa's plan, designed to sink the Democrats, might actually save them.
This week's July 1 deadline for a state budget came and went without Democrats and Republicans agreeing on a way to balance their way out of a projected $38 billion deficit. Sure, before the budget crisis is officially solved you'll see more editorials calling on our legislators to just say yes or just say no to new taxes or new service cuts. And sure, you'll read more dire predictions about cutoffs in services, plummeting bond ratings and stop-payments on payroll checks. Some of this might actually have to happen in the short run, and it's serious and unconscionable. But cooler minds are prevailing even as we speak, thank heavens, and here is why:
With the recall vote looming, the Democrats don't want to give voters any more reason to believe they can't take charge. Meanwhile, the Republicans don't want voters to see them as playing politics with the state budget in order to make Davis look bad. In other words, one close observer of the mess said, "The recall is causing the budget gap to close."
The Republicans can have a budget crisis or a recall crisis, but not both. The Democrats can hang on to their governor or their half-cent tax hike, but not both. Compromise is the order of the day. And for that you can credit Issa, the great unintentional peacemaker.
If the recall is a bit of moderating leverage working in the favor of those of us who are about ready to declare a pox on both houses, it also raises a profound question about our state: Why is California such a mess?
Why must we endure, at each budget cycle, this whirligig of confusion, threats, hopelessness and name-calling? Why do service providers -- from inner-city schools to the indispensable Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda -- have to wonder if, come July 2, there will be enough money to feed seniors or educate juniors?
One reason is that too many (though not by any means all) of our legislators get elected at chicken dinners, play chicken with our budget, then act chicken when party leaders like Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) threaten to defeat them if they don't toe the party line. A hard look at the inadequacies of term limits and redistricting may help get better, tougher men and women who will, when conscience and good sense call, fly the coop.
Another reason is that this great state, the seventh-largest economy in the world, trods with a beggar's bowl through the halls of Congress. California sends $48 billion more to Washington each year than it gets back. That's right, California is the San Fernando Valley of America. Faster than you can say taxation without representation, we shell out billions integrating wave upon wave of new immigrants into this country -- treating their illnesses, caring for their infants and elderly, educating their children. Eventually those very immigrants return the investment by fueling our growth, and our nation's.
But in the meantime, Washington doesn't send near enough federal dollars our way to help foot the bill -- not for immigration, not for education and not even for homeland security.
One solution might be taking some of the state's private and public investments and spreading them around in congressional districts from Alabama to Vermont so that senators and representatives there might not be so quick to vote against California's economic well-being.
But until then, we have our own fiscal and political house to get in order. One reason these budget debacles are cyclical, the Sacramento insider told me, is that deep down everyone believes any bust will be followed, shortly thereafter, by a boom, and that the hard choices won't remain difficult for long.
"That's the California dream," he said, "no matter what, we can weather these things."
As shameful as it is to acknowledge such things in a state with such promise, it looks like we've weathered this crisis, too, by the seat of our pants -- and Issa's.