Editorial: No budget, no pay for lawmakers

California’s 2008 version of the annual summer budget stalemate seems even more aggravating than usual. It feels like the latest sequel in an over-familiar blockbuster movie series with which the public is already fed up, and nobody is quite sure why this latest movie was even made.

At this point, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature’s Democrats and Republicans are just trying to hang tough and wait for the opposition to back down. Each side’s agenda seems more adamantly uncompromising than ever (Republicans: no new taxes; Democrats: no social-program cuts). At least there seems more lip service than usual for moving forward on some sort of spending caps and resisting additional borrowing.

Sept. 5, 2002, was the date of the state’s latest-approved budget in some 30 years, but insiders now predict the current impasse could last even longer. And everybody already expects the story to end as usual. Sometime within the next few weeks, both sides will finally recognize they cannot continue stonewalling everything without looking stupid. So they will get creative and patch together a rickety structure of borrowing, accounting fantasies and raids on local-government funds that barely gets us through the next fiscal year.

This counts as a win for the lawmakers because they will retain sufficient credibility to be re-elected. But once again, a shaky temporary solution merely passes along the process to the next legislative session. There is yet another year’s delay in facing the hard decisions necessary for remedying the structural dysfunctionality of California’s budgeting.

The state’s initiative process has gotten out of control, but we would like a proposition that takes away all pay from legislators and the governor’s appointees starting from the June 30 budget deadline until a spending bill is passed each year. These would be permanent pay losses, not just a temporary withholding during standard stalemates.

And here are some rational steps to help resolve this summer’s worse-than-usual fiscal gridlock.

If the Republicans insist that a $15.2 billion deficit can be entirely balanced by program cuts, they should take responsibility for submitting a budget draft that shows how to do it. As for the Democrats’ leaders, they reportedly stopped holding negotiation meetings for two weeks because they saw no point to it. Gov. Schwarzenegger should now lock both parties into daily marathon negotiations.

The governor deserves credit for at least trying to make some blockbuster moves pressuring the legislators to begin dealing, which was better than just waiting for party leaders to blink. But his push for a civil-service pay cut to minimum wage and refusal to sign any more bills until a budget gets passed have not worked.

It is time for Schwarzenegger to sit down with the legislative leaders and begin some classic one-on-one arm-twisting.

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