Angry Times in California

BY Spencer Michels  June 23, 2011 at 1:47 PM EDT

California State Capitol; Creative Commons photo illustration courtesy

California’s Legislature is terribly unpopular. In March, just 16 percent of the public approved of the job the lawmakers were doing. So there was a collective cheer you could almost hear from San Diego to Eureka when the state controller, John Chiang, announced he was not going to pay legislators starting June 15, because, he said, they failed to produce a truly balanced budget.

The move will cost lawmakers — whose base salary is $95,291 a year — about $400 a day, plus another $142 in expenses when the Legislature is in session. No matter what laws they pass, or when they get a budget, they never will be able to get their hands on the lost money. Chiang has estimated this could save the beleaguered state about $48,000 a day – which is peanuts compared to the giant budget they didn’t completely pass.

In fact, the lawmakers had voted for a budget by the legal deadline, but Gov. Jerry Brown looked at it, and decided it was too full of gimmicks and numbers that didn’t add up. So he vetoed it, even though his own party, the Democrats, had engineered its passage. He got a lot of praise for his veto in editorials around the state, but not from his fellow Dems in the Legislature.

What a mess! For months, the Democratic governor had been wrangling with Republicans, first to pass some tax increases and extensions, and then to let him put those extensions on the ballot– so the voters could choose to approve or reject that method to close the big gap between what the state was taking in and what it was collecting. The measure would have raised about $9 billion. But because a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature is needed for any tax increase, the minority Republicans could — and did — prevent the majority Democrats from placing the tax plan on the ballot.

Along the way, the economy improved a bit, and the huge deficit the state was facing declined a little. But California is still $10 billion in the hole.

The stopping of lawmakers’ pay had its roots in an angry electorate. Last November the voters approved an initiative measure that for the first time would dock the pay of lawmakers, if they didn’t get the budget done on time. It was a sure sign of public disgust, a kind of spiteful plan that would hit the lawmakers where it hurt: in the pocketbook. Almost never in modern times has the Legislature finished work on the budget by the constitutional deadline; they essentially stopped the clock, and eventually passed the budget. But the partisan rancor has been so great in recent years that little was getting done. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried, and mostly failed, to launch an era of bipartisan cooperation between the Democrats and the greatly outnumbered Republicans. Today, the antagonism seems deeper than ever, though people on both sides say it isn’t personal; it’s ideological.

Things have changed from the time 30 years ago when Jerry Brown was first governor. The work got done more efficiently, term limits for legislators didn’t exist, the speaker of the Assembly could make backroom deals and grease the skids, and the budget got passed. It was old-time politics, like it or not.

But now, just as on the national scene, California politicians are marching to an ideological drummer. Republicans don’t want to cooperate with Democrats on taxes and spending. The anger at “big” government, the encouragement of the Tea Party movement to plant anti-tax feet firmly in concrete — has state government at a standstill. Democrats aren’t sure how to handle it.

Meanwhile, John Chiang, the gutsy controller who defied his own party — is being hailed. One Facebook friend posted: “John Chiang for Governor.” But some Democratic lawmakers accused Chiang of “playing to the headlines.”

With all the hullabaloo and the missing paychecks, the lawmakers and Brown seem once again to be trying to reach a deal on taxes and the budget. Talks are ongoing, as they always are. But the anger and distrust, instead of subsiding, seems to be getting worse.