Let’s Call It an Indefinite Furlough

Friday, July 2, 2010

California’s fiscal crisis springs from a political system badly in need of repair. The state constitution requires the legislature and the governor to adopt a budget by June 30 in which estimated appropriated expenditures do not exceed estimated revenue. But this annual mandate has been repeatedly disregarded. Budgets are adopted later than the deadline, and they often fail to limit spending to expected revenue. The most recent shortfall exceeds $19 billion. The prospect of corrective measures, without fundamental change, is nil.

Politicians from both parties are to blame. Democrats spend money they cannot raise because they cannot impose new taxes without Republican votes. Republicans block new taxes but nonetheless allow the state to spend more money than they allow it to raise. Although our Republican governor has limited the damage, he has failed to be “the Terminator” of deficit spending.

California’s politicians inflict incalculable damage. Their budgets are not only unbalanced but also fraudulent, thereby destroying trust in government. They have damaged California’s credit, increasing the cost of borrowing by billions of dollars and further undermining California’s fiscal capacity. They have ruined California’s public schools and threaten its great university system, driving down its reputation and forcing out students who cannot afford the increased costs or will not accept reduced quality.

While capitulating repeatedly to public unions and agreeing to fiscally irresponsible future obligations, they have inflicted pain and suffering on many groups in need: the disabled, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the disadvantaged. Perhaps worst of all, by making the state a terrible place to locate a business, they are destroying the engine that has generated the resources California needs to be great.

Some legislators favor a constitutional convention aimed at increasing their ability to spend. They only demonstrate just how out of touch they are and why their approval rating is 16 percent.

So, what should be done? Currently, the only remedy for the legislature’s failure to adopt a balanced budget is that lawmakers are prevented from adding new expenditures. This is ineffective. Not only does it fail to ensure necessary reductions in current expenditures, but it relies on irresponsible people to correct their own failings. We must do what any rational person does when someone fails to perform a task for which he or she is hired: throw the bums out!

Impeachment is not an option. It is too complicated and would depend either on the votes of legislators themselves (a ludicrous thought) or on costly, difficult, time-consuming voter initiatives. Rather, California needs a constitutional amendment that effectively enforces the budgetary process its people have adopted.

The amendment should provide that if the legislature fails to comply with the requirement of Section 12(c) of the constitution requiring the legislature and the governor to adopt a balanced budget bill by midnight June 30 every year, they are toast. All of them—Democrats, Republicans, independents—must be fired. Every legislator in the Assembly and the state Senate would be replaced in a November election following their violation of the constitution’s mandate. And these legislators should become ineligible to run in any election for any public office in the state for at least ten years, though a permanent ban would be entirely justified.

If the legislature adopts a balanced budget as required but the governor vetoes it, or if the governor signs a budget that does not meet the constitution’s requirements, the governor too should be fired and replaced the following November, and become ineligible thereafter for public office in the state.

Why fire everyone? Some legislators are ready to tax enough to cover the spending they support, or to cut spending enough to avoid the taxes they oppose. But which legislators are acting responsibly and which are irresponsible? Clearly all of them are responsible for the deadlocks that lead to deficit spending. All of them need to know that unless they collectively perform tasks they are collectively assigned by the constitution, they will be held collectively responsible for failing to do so.

Some legislators are determined to keep their offices by spending to satisfy their liberal constituencies; others are determined to keep their offices by refusing to raise taxes, thereby satisfying their conservative constituencies. Both are responsible for an unbalanced budget. The constitution is the appropriate and effective vehicle by which the will of the whole people can be imposed on the representatives of gerrymandered districts who are determined to keep office by satisfying their voters, even if that means violating the constitution.

Until an amendment that ends the nonsense in Sacramento is adopted, irresponsible government, and California’s descent and decay, will continue. On the other hand, if such an amendment were adopted, we would very soon see that legislators would obey its terms to keep their jobs. Imagine that!