Dear Big Daddy,
Okay, wise guy, what would YOU do to balance the budget?
— Stumped in Sacramento
Since it’s something of a miracle that I can talk to you at all, my answer will call for several miracles.
First miracle: I’d turn the clock back to the 1960s when I was the Assembly speaker and was accumulating the girth and the clout that earned me the nickname that Capitol Weekly’s editors insist on putting on this column. I’ll deal with them later.
In those days, we hadn’t tied ourselves into knots with Prop. 13 that turned every city, county, special district and school district in California into a beggar that comes to Sacramento with a tin cup.
I’m not sayin’ we don’t need Prop. 13 for homeowners, but the big commercial boys and girls have been dodgin’ the spirit of Prop. 13 for 30 years, and I’m in a place where I know something about spirits.
So my second miracle would be to split the tax rolls and make sure the plutocrats pay their share of Prop. 13 taxes when they sell an office building or a piece of an industrial park.
Third miracle: There was no Gann limit that put a cost-of-living clamp on appropriations. So make that Miracle Numero 3: Ban Gann.
My fourth miracle will make the K-14 folks and my old pal John Mockler scream. Before Prop 98, we didn’t have 40 percent of our state budget already obligated before we started divvying up the dough.
Every interest group needs to begin the budget race from the same starting gate, as Miracle No. 4, get rid of Prop. 98. Like I said, I hear Mockler screaming.
And in the ’60s, there was no such thing as term limits. So if a majority of the voters thought an Assembly member or a senator was doin’ a good job, they’d be re-elected until they could stay under the dome long enough to learn what they were supposed to do for their district instead of thinking about what interest group they’ll hook up with when they’re termed out.
Term limits are a gimmick whose time has come and gone – unlike me, of course.
In the ’60s, Republicans and Democrats actually talked to one another. Now I admit that sometimes the conversation involved cuss words, but they were meaningful cuss words. It also helped if occasionally there was a little gin or bourbon to, shall we say, lubricate the gears of government.
So here’s what I’d propose to Jerry Brown as he begins his third term as Guv. Call in the elder statesmen, two Republicans and two Democrats, who are still alive. Invite Willie Brown, George Deukmejian, Bill Bagley and that young upstart John Burton to meet at Frank Fat’s at 7 p.m. (My old watering holes – the basement bar at the old El Mirador Hotel, Posey’s, and a few others – are gone. That’s why I suggest Fat’s.)
Have Finance Director Ana Matasantos and Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor give the four of them a half-hour budget briefing. That’s all the info they’ll need. After the briefing, Jerry should saunter in with the other four members of the Big Five – a handle that always pissed me off – and order a round of drinks for everybody. Then make sure Fat’s staff locks the doors. For a couple of hours, only Willie, George, Bill and John get to talk. Just make sure John talks first so the other three can smooth over any of his rough edges.
Nobody leaves until there’s a budget agreement. It’ll be a night they’ll talk about for years, just like the time I locked up the Assembly in ’63. A $25 billion gap will dissolve with every round of drinks. No need to haggle until the May Revise or the June constitutional deadline. Get it done before Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s birthday.
I remember my protégé, Willie Brown, saying one time that there wasn’t a problem in California that he and Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy couldn’t solve in half a day. Unfortunately, Ken and I will be unable to attend the meeting. However, the spirit of comity that worked for Willie and Ken will undoubtedly prevail at any meeting supervised by Willie, George, Bill, and, well, even John. Take the budget agreement back to the Capitol, begin the floor sessions, waive the rules and vote on it immediately.
If Jerry starts his governorship this way, he will be well on his way to immortality, the state’s budget deficit will be closed, the newshounds will be thrilled, and historians will see that when ol’ Jess locked up the Assembly nearly 38 years ago he provided a precedent for the miraculous budget breakthrough of 2011.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot: At Fat’s, make sure the elder statesmen get napkins with every drink. They may need to take notes. Napkin agreements work well at Fat’s.