Republicans: You can be cutting good deals, right now

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a budget plan that includes roughly $12 billion in continued revenue from keeping four temporary tax increases on the books another five years and causing a previously approved corporate tax break to be less generous.

Because of a campaign pledge, the Democratic governor insists on voter approval of the idea.

To place the question on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote, which means at least two of the 27 Republicans in the 80-member Assembly must vote for the constitutional amendment, assuming all 52 Democrats do.

In the 40-member Senate, Brown needs another two Republican votes in the Senate. Again, if all 25 Democrats vote “yes.”

Rather than just two GOP votes, Brown says he’d prefer at least a half dozen so the deal seems more bipartisan.

All of which begs the question: Why isn’t there a line of Republican lawmakers streaming into Brown’s Capitol office, starting with the GOP leaders of each house?

A budget plan like Brown has put forward, in which some Republican support of one of its key elements is essential, positively trumpets:

“Attention shoppers, this store is now open. Come on down and pick my shelves clean.”

Former Senate GOP Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno said numerous times – always with a big smile – that it was more fun being part of the minority party.

Maddy would be having the time of his life with the current budget situation, handily securing goodie after goodie for his caucus members from Brown.

Nor would the goodies necessarily be big slabs of pork like a new baseball diamond for Ripon or a spiffy telecommunications system for the Alturas Fire Department. Although such district-friendly largesse never hurts.

In Maddy’s day, deal-closers seemed to be broader affairs deals where both sides could score a win, a tradition at least some smart legislative staffers keep alive.

In 1989, the State Highway Account ran dry. To keep street, road and freeway projects going, the gas tax had to be increased.

Albeit in the last year of his second term, Gov. George Deukmejian recognized the economy would suffer if commuters and goods were stalled even longer on choked freeways. He backed a 5-cent gas tax increase – with a 1-cent increase each year for the four years following – and a 55 percent increase in the weight fees truckers pay.

Despite business groups like the state Chamber of Commerce embracing the plan, the more rigidly ideological Assembly Republicans remained steadfast against a tax increase.

Their chief budget negotiator at the time was Bill Baker of Danville, the vice chair of what was then called the Ways and Means Committee.

Baker and his talented, pragmatic staff came up with a win for Republicans that would give political cover to enough of them to vote to place the gas tax increase on the ballot.
In a meeting with then Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Baker explained to the San Francisco Democrat that Republicans needed some victory to immunize them against casting a vote in favor of increased taxes.

The answer, Baker said, was a cap on state spending.

Brown sputtered, then huffed and finally puffed, insisting both forcefully and profanely that he and his fellow Democrats would never countenance such an outrageous affront.

“You don’t understand, Willie,” Baker said mildly. “We write it so the state never hits the cap.”  

Nearly instantly, Brown became an enthusiastic supporter. The constitutional amendment was passed and eventually approved by voters in June 1990. Republicans in their campaign literature touted their support for reining in profligate state spending.

While such deal cutting – by necessity  – occurs behind closed doors, the current GOP leadership certainly gives no public indication of compromise being a possibility.

Consider Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga. In a Feb. 16 interview with the Sacramento Bee, Dutton notes that Democrats only need Republican votes if they wish to raise taxes.

He sounds dismissive rather than appreciative of the opportunity this presents for his team.

Dutton goes on to say Democrats should do everything he and his fellow Republicans want like scaling back public pension benefits and eliminating various requirements imposed on businesses that Republicans contend hamper the economy.

Then, Dutton says, once the Democrats acquiesce to everything on the GOP ransom note, no votes will be forthcoming to place the governor’s tax extension proposal on the ballot.
“No, I’m not interested in providing any votes,” Dutton says in the Bee, adding that none of the Senate’s other 14 Republican members want to either.

In fact, Dutton tells the Bee, rather than vote to let voters decide whether they want to continue paying higher taxes he would reduce public school spending by $4.6 billion.

This despite public schools receiving more than $12 billion less in state support after three years of reductions and the complaints by the business interests that contribute to Republicans about the necessity of a better educated workforce.

Not exactly hands across the water.

Dutton also says the following:

“I have explained to my members that if they have any intentions of wanting to cut any side deal, I prefer they do it sooner rather than later and I would appreciate if they let me know up front.”

Perhaps the Senate GOP leader was taken out of context but, traditionally, whatever deals get cut are supposed to be done through leadership – hence the name – in a manner that benefits the entire caucus.

As opposed to George Washington Plunkett, the Tammany Hall boss who saw his opportunities and took them, Republicans seem to now either chronically over-reach or not reach at all.

Not exactly a recipe for success for a party that constitutes 31 percent of registered voters.

Pension reform? The Democrats won’t go for forcing future employees into 401Ks but public employee unions would help pass measures to eliminate spiking.

Get rid of overtime after an eight-hour workday? No way. But several Democratic senators are advocating a bill, SB 366, aimed at reducing at least duplicative regulation by state agencies.

Interestingly, one-third of the members of the union representing classified school employees are Republicans.

What might happen, hypothetically, when the citizens’ commission draws new legislative boundary lines and California’s open primary system kick-in during the 2012 election.

In a GOP-leaning district which Republican candidate would win the union’s endorsement – and financial support?

The smart money might be on the one that voted to eliminate pension spiking, axed some red tape and helped give voters the opportunity to decide whether they want to keep paying higher taxes.

Who knows? The Chamber might even go for them, too.

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