States Dems Should Hold Strong on Budget

by Casey Mills on August 19, 2008

Sunday’s vote on the state budget, in which every single Republican in the Assembly cast a ‘no’ vote against a proposal that would have both cut spending and raised taxes to close the current $15.2 million gap, exposed a glaring fact about the budget impasse. For state Republicans, the process has ceased to represent an effort to reach a solution. Instead, it represents an opportunity to stoke California’s anti-tax sentiments and tell constituents come election years that they ‘steadfastly opposed the Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes.’ While the State Dems must hold strong in their efforts to pass a more progressive state budget, they must simultaneously develop a simple argument targeted towards everyday voters explaining their refusal to bend to Republicans’ will.

Despite California’s progressive reputation, our state possesses a long history of being rabidly opposed to taxation. Proposition 13, passed in the late 70s, tapped into this wellspring and sparked a national movement still in bloom today. State Republicans in Sacramento remain determined to keep stoking the fires of the faithful.

Reading quotes from Assembly Republicans about Sunday’s vote made me feel like I’d been transported back to the apex of American fiscal conservatism, the Reagan era. Mike Villines (R-Clovis), for example, ripped a page from the Gipper’s playbook, telling the Chronicle that “what’s important now is that they [the Democrats] know we’re not willing to (vote for) taxes.”

To close the state’s $15.2 billion budget gap without raising a single tax represents an impossible task. Employing solely cuts would cause catastrophic effects to state services and anger amongst constituents across party lines. And the Republicans know it. They refuse to present a tax-free alternative to the Democrats’ solution, instead focusing on pandering to their anti-tax base and painting Democrats as fiscally irresponsible.

The state’s mainstream media seems determined to add credence to this narrative. They present the battle as one between the Governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature. In reality, because of California’s policy of requiring a 2/3 majority to pass the budget, it’s the State and Assembly Republicans who hold all the power. As long as these Republicans refuse to vote for a budget proposal, negotiations will remain at a standstill.

This leaves the Democrats with two options:

First, they can continue to bend over backwards to produce compromise budget proposals, trying to convince the public that they’re still working to solve the impasse. This involves offering up more capitulations that should be anathema to a truly progressive state Democratic Party, including creating a state spending cap that would destroy a wide array of essential services. It also does nothing to reverse the Republican narrative that the entire budget debate comes down to taxation.

Or, they can hold strong and refuse – just like the Republicans – to pass any budget that doesn’t represent their vision for California.

Holding strong seems the obvious choice. The problem remains, however, that to the average voter, Democratic control of the Senate and Assembly means the budget failing to pass will be viewed as their fault. The media will do absolutely nothing to correct this fallacy. You can try to tell folks about the 2/3 majority rule until you’re blue in the face – when something doesn’t happen in Sacramento, people will continue to blame the Democrats.

So what can the state’s progressives do? Fight fire with fire.

They can come up with a slogan, a mantra, as pithy and powerful as ‘no new taxes,’ explaining why they’re refusing to pass a budget. And they can use it as their battle cry during this year’s budget fight. The opposition has turned the debate over the budget into a proxy war over taxes, and progressives must now utilize the same strategy. Instead of reacting to accusations of being fiscally irresponsible, it’s time Democrats went on the offense.

There’s a variety of slogans to choose from, as the budget battle represents a fight to save basic services that reflect the core values of many Californians. “Respect Our Children,” for example, as a spending cap would prevent the state from being able to afford baseline levels of spending on the state’s school system. “Protect Our Workers,” as a sales tax increase would hit the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of the state’s low-income workers hard. “Grow Our Economy,” as desperately needed funding for research and development in building new sectors in the state’s economy would disappear without increases in taxes. “Real Transportation Choices,” as without new revenue, state public transportation funding will be gutted.

The list could go on. What’s important is that Democrats should cease trying to pass a compromise budget when the people they’re negotiating with obviously have no intention of compromising. They should instead focus their efforts on convincing Californians that the reason they’re refusing to capitulate is to protect and defend the interests of the state’s residents.

While further intransigence from both sides means a budget solution won’t be reached any time soon, what have the Democrats have to lose? Yes, the state will face a cornucopia of problems should the stalemate continue. But the Democratic Party must work to convince the state that it’s the Republicans’ thoughtlessness towards children, workers, the economy and the environment that’s the cause of these problems – not the Democrats’ love of taxes.

The budget shouldn’t be about taxes. It should be about people. And it’s up to the Democrats to change the terms of the debate.

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