Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Hey Big Daddy,
Do you think that joint session of the Legislature will bring us any closer to a budget resolution?
Frustrated in Fullerton

Hey Frustrated,

Well, it was quite a show. It really did feel like the grown-ups were brought in to tell the kids just how serious the problem really is. It reminded me of all those “Just Say No” sermons I endured as a product of California public schools. Of course, we all know how well those sermons worked.

It’s an old adage that even though a bunch of the members may be freshman, the staff are mainly veterans. And as grizzled grunts who’ve seen the body parts fly, they know a charade when they see one. This week’s dance of the fiscal finger waggers wasn’t intended for the members or the staff at all. It was put on for the sake of what’s left of the press corps—who were out in what passes for full force these days—and a public they may finally be paying attention to the problem.

Look, I like a game of charades as much as the next guy (especially when I get to do that “sounds like” bit and then pantomime something unmentionable). But at some point, when you light yourself on fire and start running around the house, it stops being a game.

So yes, that sound of grumbling you heard emanating from the Capitol until it was a roar, that was the staff, TVs tuned to the Cal Channel, mocking the proceedings. In case you missed it, here are some highlights: John Chiang may be good with numbers, but as a public speaker, he’s…good with numbers; lecturing rarely works with children under five, so it won’t work on the Legislature; and of course that old classic, “Really, there’s a budget crisis? Thanks for letting me know.”

Now some under-the-dome types have been calling this the “scared straight” approach to budget reform. Well, it didn’t work on Liberace, and it’s not going to work on our legislators. We’re looking at not being able to pay our bills, with financial disaster followed by a full James Cameron Hollywood blockbuster version of the Book of Revelation due out this summer if they don’t do something, but the sense urgency over there, er, lacks palpability, one might say. Maybe if we cut off per diem and made them all ride mopeds, we might get somewhere.

But at some point, the good people of California have to engage. It’s simply not enough to sit idly by and wave your wand of cynicism, declaring a pox on all houses. If the people want action, they’re going to have to pressure their elected officials to take some.

In the meantime, it looks like some folks are taking the “Thelma and Louise” approach to budget negotiations, and seem all to happy to drive the sucker off the cliff. It’s like the old P.J. O’Rourke quote about the two party system: “Democrats are the ones who believe government can work. Republicans are the ones who say government doesn’t work, and they keep getting elected and proving it.”

So there you have it, right back where we started. Politically speaking, the worst financial crisis in a generation would seem to give Democrats and Republicans alike enough cover to make the combination of cuts and tax hikes needed to get us out of this mess. Yep, that’s the theory. In practice, this theory turns out to be less like, say, the theory of gravity and more like your “theory” that the guy spending the night at your ex-wife’s house in sleeping on the couch.

In other words, if all we can agree on is that things suck, it’s a good bet that they’ll keep sucking. And that’s a theory you can take to the bank.

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