While the local budget fight is now behind us, Republicans in Sacramento are literally holding our state government hostage. Despite a budget proposal that has no tax increases and horrific cuts in public transportation, substance abuse treatment and disability payments, the 15 Republicans in the State Senate have refused to support what passed in the State Assembly (and is supported by Governor Schwarzenegger) – because it doesn’t go far enough. After a 19-hour lockdown of the State Capitol over the weekend, an exasperated Senate President Don Perata finally told Republicans to come back on Wednesday and write the budget themselves. Absent intervention from the Governor, we’re likely to see an even worse product before it’s all over.

There are two basic reasons why we are now in this mess: (a) an ultra-partisan gerrymander that elected Republicans who are truly insane, and (b) California’s requirement that two-thirds of the legislature must pass the state budget. Only three states don’t require a simple majority to pass a budget (Arkansas and Rhode Island are the other two), and until that changes, Republicans can blackmail the Democratic majority into passing the most draconian budget cuts – leaving local government scrambling for solutions.

California is a deep blue state, where the electorate supports spending more money on education, health and human services – even if it means raising taxes. So it’s no surprise that Democrats have a healthy majority in both the State Assembly (48-32) and the State Senate (25-15), and that Arnold Schwarzenegger was only re-elected after co-opting progressive issues.

But don’t expect the will of the people to translate into a budget that reflects their values. With a two-thirds majority requirement, Republicans can hold the entire budget hostage unless the Democrats agree to their demands. In 2003, Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte made an infamous threat to his fellow Republicans that if any of them dare vote for a single tax increase, they would recruit a primary challenge in the next election.

And this year we’re seeing more of the same obstructionism, only taken to a whole new level.

The budget that passed the State Assembly included a $1.2 billion cut from public transportation, and slashed $40 million in drug treatment programs mandated by Proposition 36. The Democrats also agreed to a four-month delay in cost-of-living increases for SSI recipients (i.e., elderly and disabled) – which will “save” the state $247 million. To get Republican votes, the Assembly also had to pass a tax break for the film industry, and repealed a tax break for public school teachers.

“These are ugly compromise solutions,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno, “where we have to give up good things in order to get something in return. It’s a Sophie’s Choice that is caused by the two-thirds majority requirement. And it gets worse every year.”

But for Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, even these cuts are not enough for him to support the budget. Democrats only need two Republican votes in the State Senate to hit the 2/3 mark, but Ackerman has taken obstructionist tactics to an entirely new level. Now if a majority of his Republican Senate comrades have a problem with the budget, he said, none of them are going to vote for it. He’s not just holding the vote to a two-thirds requirement – he wants practical unanimity.

How unreasonable are the Republicans in the state legislature, and what vision do they have for California? They won't even say what specific problems they have with the budget, and don't appear to have a problem with private negotiations that would violate the Brown Act at the local level.

All 15 Senators and 31 of the 32 Assembly members have signed the Grover Norquist Pledge to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” As Frank Russo noted at the California Progress Report, many have never voted for a California budget. Like Norquist, they appear to believe that we should shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

And yet, the final product of the budget could hinge on seven Republican votes in the Assembly, and two Republican votes in the Senate. In a deep blue state where the voters clearly share Democratic values.

In the days of Governors Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan, Republicans in the state legislature were willing to support tax increases. But in the earlier part of this decade, while Republican Governors and legislatures throughout the country voted to raise taxes due to a recession, California’s G.O.P. legislators held up their minority power to block any effort at a reasonable budget. It's a lot simpler to play the obstructioinist when you're not "in control" and are therefore unaccountable.

In March 2004, California voters had the opportunity to lower the requirement to pass the budget from two-thirds to a simple majority - like it is in 47 states. Proposition 56 was eminently reasonable, but without an effective campaign it went down in flames. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to report that it failed in every county except San Francisco.

But it’s more complicated than just the two-thirds roadblock to pass the budget. In 2001, both parties agreed to draw the lines so that we now have “one-party” districts in the state legislature – Democrats and Republicans can keep the seats that they control in perpetuity because the partisan registration in each district is overwhelming. While this ensures that Democrats keep a majority, it also means that the Republicans who come to Sacramento are from overwhelmingly right-wing districts.

And while they’re in the minority, these Republicans are still more than one third of the legislature – and thus can hold the budget hostage if they wanted to. Because they come from solid-red districts, they are only accountable to the most extreme wings of their party. So if they get a right-wing challenge within their party for deviating from the Republican line, they take this threat seriously.

In the Senate, Ackerman is even more unreasonable because of pressure that he’s gotten from his own caucus. Last December, he came within one vote of losing his Minority Leader position to Jim Battin – because colleagues felt that he was “not partisan enough.”

With Republicans refusing to co-operate, there is one person who could intervene and help us get out of this mess – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “When Gray Davis was Governor,” said Leno, “his job was to keep Democrats in line and make sure they were there for him. With Schwarzenegger, it’s his job as Republican leader of the state to make sure that there are Republican votes on the budget.”

But Schwarzenegger has been completely disengaged from the process this year – leaving the Democratic leaders in the legislature to negotiate with the most right-wing Republicans who punish each other for not “being partisan enough.” While the Governor has lately sent out statements urging passage of the budget, he really needs to step up to the plate to make it happen.

Because the Democrats have compromised enough on this budget. The budget in its current form is a disaster, but we can’t afford to make the final product any worse – just because a vocal minority refuses to negotiate. And that means the Republicans need to back down … now.

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