California budget battle is just a replay of 2009’s wrangling

So what’s different about the 2011 edition of the California budget wrangle, vis-a-vis the spectacle of dysfunction the Capitol produced in years past? Not much, as it’s turning out.

Jerry Brown returned to the governorship he left 28 years earlier with largely the same expectations that predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger had seven years earlier.

Both believed that the unique qualities they brought to the office — Schwarzenegger with his celebrity and independence, Brown with his experience and age — could, or even would, overcome the Capitol’s chronic inability to do the public’s business.

Both believed that they could personally persuade legislators of both parties to move outside their ideological comfort zones into the middle ground of compromise to bridge the state’s perennial gap between income and outgo.

But as Schwarzenegger quickly learned, and Brown is learning, the “structural deficit” in the state budget is really the product of a deep-seated structural deficiency in the political system that makes effective and timely policy decisions virtually impossible to achieve.

What’s happening, or not happening, this year bears an uncanny resemblance to how the budget drama unfolded two years ago.

Then, as now, the governor had a deal with Democrats, hinging on new taxes, that needed a few Republican votes to enact and an election to ratify. Then, as now, a few Republicans were dickering with the governor on side issues as anti-tax forces threatened political retaliation on GOP legislators who broke ranks.

The deal was done in February 2009, but was then undone by voters three months later when they rejected the package of implementing measures. Among other things, the election short-circuited the new taxes, which is why Brown is now seeking Republican agreement to ask voters to reinstate them.

Thursday was Brown’s self-proclaimed 60-day deadline for action. It passed with a whimper as both legislative houses met for less than 20 minutes and blew town for the weekend.

Brown wants an election on the taxes in June, but he is beginning to bump up against legal and practical deadlines to get there.

Brown, like Schwarzenegger in 2009, may still nail down enough votes to make it happen. But even if he does, voters would have the last word.

They’d be asked to pay about $1,000 per family each year for five years. And if anything, the public’s attitudes about the economy and Capitol dysfunction are now even more negative than they were then.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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