Advancing a Free Society

Is There a Republican Endgame in Sacramento?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Perhaps it’s true that east is east, west is west, and never the twain shall meet. But what would Rudyard Kipling say about the apparent differences between Republican lawmakers in Sacramento and their GOP cousins in Congress?

Figure it this way: the argument can be made that congressional Republicans are playing a clever insiders’ game. They’ve endured budget meetings with Joe Biden, then walked out of said discussions – letting it be known that the Vice President wasn’t serious about entitlement reform and instead wanted to raise taxes, an unacceptable approach to Republicans.

The only to way to end the impasse: force President Obama to step up to the plate, and step in for his veep – which indeed Obama has done, promising to meet next week with Senate leadership.

For Republicans, this seems like smart politics as (a) it forces Obama to make good on deficit reduction and (b) potentially exposes a major Obama flaw: a lack of executive skills and inability to drive a negotiating process, be it the stimulus package, healthcare reform or the next step in Libya.

If only the situation were as clear in Sacramento, where State Assembly and Senate Republicans find themselves in a position of unique leverage – unique in that GOP lawmakers barely constitute one-third of each legislative chamber, yet two of their votes in each chamber are required in order for Gov. Jerry Brown to move forward on five years' worth of tax extensions.

The question is: given this rare window of opportunity, do Sacramento Republicans have an endgame in mind?

If the goal is to hold the line on taxes – with the added bonus of tormenting the governor, dividing Democrats and gumming up government – then California Republicans have succeeded . . . in spades.

At present in California (and things can change between the time this was written and when you read it), there was no state budget in place, lawmakers were stripped of their pay for failing to deliver a legitimate spending plan by California’s June 15 constitutional deadline, Democratic legislators were miffed with Brown for vetoing their budget proposal and giving the State Controller grounds for taking away those paychecks, and no one could safely guess the next step – perhaps a deal by the July 1 fiscal deadline, perhaps a vindictive ballot measure to punish Republicans for their wicked ways.

But what’s also unclear: what’s the Republican definition of success in Sacramento? Is it forcing the governor and his fellow Democrats to give up the idea of tax extensions? Is it cutting a deal with Brown, one chock full of big conservative ideas, in exchange for giving the green light to a special election and an up-or-down vote on taxes? Or, as a permanent underclass in Sacramento, is the definition of “Republican legislator” something akin to “fly in the ointment”?

In March, Senate Republicans released a list of negotiating items. The more contentious, headline-grabbing items – pension reform, a budget spending cap – seemingly are nonstarters as any deal between Brown and GOP lawmakers requires Democratic buy-in. Indeed, both items are likely to be featured in expensive initiative battles in the summer and fall of 2012.

So here’s the question facing Sacramento Republicans: why not cut a deal that includes less sexy ideas, but nonetheless could help with the party improving its image? Job-creation and education reform come to mind. So does streamlining government and pursing spending accountability.

Under this scenario, Republicans would go ahead and give Brown his special election. But if that’s a roll of the dice, it's playing with “loaded” dice as Republicans know full well that a disgruntled electorate is less than likely to sign off on a tax plan and a “bailout” of the budget deficit, just as it rejected higher vehicle-license fees for state-parks maintenance last fall.

The shame would be if California’s budget impasse somehow ended with Republicans winning the battle, but continuing to lose the war. In Sacramento, that means having it the GOP’s way on cutting spending and refuting higher taxes – but doing little to improve the state party’s image in the world beyond the State Capitol.

That’s why a deal with the governor, though it may seem anathema to conservative diehards, politically at least makes sense.

(photo credit: Jeremy Mates)