Experts Expound

Big Daddy

Dear Big Daddy,
Is the budget in trouble because of that Maldonado special-election flap? Can you believe that politics plays such a role in our state budget?
–Jim in San Diego

Dear Jim,
Of course, it’s in trouble and, of course, politics plays a role. A good thing, too: Take politics and trouble out of the budget, and what do you have? A boring, five-pound document that nobody reads until it’s too late and gets forgotten almost as quickly as it is approved and signed. Even I wouldn’t read them, and I wrote at least a dozen of them.

Politics drives the budget. The budget is not like your checkbook. In fact, the state budget is a statement of political priorities, based on money you hope will arrive before you have to spend it. The best part of the budget isn’t in the main document, it’s in the trailer bills. Those bills carry the deals that put the budget together. They reflect all the blood on the floor, all the late-night fighting, all the pain. They are California’s version of the riders in Congress. Of course, ours are more interesting because our Legislature is much cooler than Congress.
So when the governor turned his back on the Democratic leadership and set the runoff election for Abel Maldonado’s 15th Senate District, he gave Democrats yet one more reason to despise him and his administration. For his part, the governor obviously is fed up with the Democratic leadership, so it’s not like any new ground was broken here.

The result, though, is that this year’s fight over the budget will be another dreary, prolonged, slug-fest. Not the kind you’d see in the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, but the kind you might see in a late-night cage match for the World Wrestling Federation: Lots of goofy people, lots of sweat, lots of screaming. We might have better costumes, but that’s debatable. And at the end of night, when the lights come up, everyone looks sheepish and forgets where they parked their cars.

The best way to negotiate a budget is through fear. The best budgets are written by people desperately trying to protect themselves from leaders who are trying to crush their favorite programs into dust. Remember, the best leaders like shafting the members of each house even more than they like shafting the public. That means lawmakers, grudgingly, will write a good, public-service budget only under the threat of the leaders’ whip.

At the end of the day, of course, everybody declares victory and walks away happy.

But to do this right, you need pros and you need to weedle, schmooze, frighten, flatter and threaten the members.

I’m not available, but a friend of mine saw Willie Brown Tuesday night having a quiet drink at Tosca’s.

So call him up, and get him over here.

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