Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Dear Big Daddy,
Jerry Brown has spent more time in secret caucuses than Joe Stalin, but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere in cajoling Republicans to sign off on a budget plan. What do you think?
–Tense in Tiburon

Dear Tense,
Not to worry. Budget negotiations are like the NBA – all the action is in the final two minutes, and whenever you go for the ball you throw an elbow. At the end of the game, the buzzer sounds, the cursing stops and everybody shakes hands. And then we all move to Anaheim.

Pensions, welfare, health care, redevelopment – it’s all on the table. There’s plenty in there to hate, plenty to like. Everybody can go back to the local district and claim victory. And then the voters will have to weigh in.

But that’s my problem with this whole process: I don’t trust voters.

They’re like juries that get swayed by slick lawyers. They respond to passions whipped up by TV ads and radio talk shows, and they know little about the state budget and even less about how it is put together. Everybody in the Capitol protects his own turf, everybody has an angle. Everybody sells out, everybody buys in. Voters are no different.

I know I’ve said this before, but everybody has a favorite cliché and this one’s mine: Voters are the weak link in a Democracy. My former favorite cliché was “Hiram Johnson would roll over in his grave,” but too many other people started using it.

Again, the jury comparison comes to mind: Years ago, I sat in a Sacramento court just three blocks from my office and the jury was not present as the lawyers argued a point of law involving jury instructions. “Well, both of you just spent hours declaring how much you admire the jury system,” the venerable judge told the lawyers. “My experience has been half the time they don’t know what they’re doing.” There was a shocked silence.

I always liked that judge, although he wasn’t particularly likeable. Once, a reporter told me he forgot his brief case in a courtroom seat and started to leave. “Hey, don’t forget your brief case,” the judge snapped at him. “This place is full of crooks.”

But what he said about juries applies to voters, too. Every once in a while, they get it right, but half the time they don’t know what they’re doing, and their decisions often make things worse. I sound angry, but so what? You’d be angry, too, if you were dead and forced to watch all this as the state that once ruled the world slips into disrepair.

So here’s the answer: benevolent despotism. We elect a smart, kindly despot for eight years who calls the budget shots. The Legislature – a unicameral Legislature, by the way – has the power of review and little more.

I think it would work. Naturally, I would volunteer as the first despot if circumstances were different. Leo McCarthy is out, too. That leaves Burton, Lockyer, Brown (Willie or Jerry) and – the only Republican in the group – Brulte.

What could possibly go wrong?

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