California Off a Cliff

Posted by Bobbi Murray on August 4, 2009

Hey everybody, have you heard? The California legislature finally passed a budget plan on July 21 (the constitutional deadline is June 15). The state famously began paying bills with IOUs on July 2. These get paid back with interest, so for each day the budget was late, California went deeper into the hole.

It wasn’t as if the Democratic leadership wasn’t diligent. When the Democratic budget proposal that included some tax hikes to balance deep cuts got voted down on June 24, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and President pro tem Darryl Steinberg came back the next day with another plan. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected it, with support from the legislative Republican minority.

Our state budget is late every damn year. California is one of three states that requires more than a simple majority vote to approve a budget. (Howdy Arkansas! How’s it going, Rhode Island? You guys late on your bills and in terrible debt, too?)

So every year a handful of conservative Republican legislators, many with the wingnutty bonafides of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint,
stall the whole budget while they fuss and grandstand and call for the elimination of social services for the poor and no new taxes.

The Democratic majority is left to scrape and scramble and negotiate just to keep the most basic programs from being axed. They did that with only modest success this year. After the negotiations concluded and all parties thought there was an agreement, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sucker punched the Dems last week by using his veto to hack another $489 million from social programs.

Says the Los Angeles Times:

“The extra cuts the governor made Tuesday — $489 million — took nearly $80 million that pays for workers who help abused and neglected children; $50 million from Healthy Families, which provides healthcare to children in low-income families; $50 million from services for developmentally delayed children under age 3; $16 million from domestic-violence programs; and $6.3 million from services for the elderly.”

Oh, and might as well close a few parks:

“Among other reductions was $6.2 million more from parks, which could result in the closure of 100, rather than 50, of California’s 279 state parks.”

Cut cut cut! Arnold certainly is an action hero. Why, he slashed public sector jobs and salaries, forcing unpaid furloughs three days a month.

And we we all remember when he crashed into office in 2003 and demolished the vehicle license fees, which he called a car tax. That has cost the state $6.5 billion a year — let’s see, times five years, not counting 2009 — why, that’s $32.5 billion. What do you know —this year’s budget gap was $26 billion.

We can’t raise taxes or impose fees on oil drilling because the Republicans say so and if they get mad, they will hold up the budget until hell freezes over since it’s part of Big Government anyway. Plus one of the Governator’s sticking points was no new taxes.

That is the dreary backdrop as we ponder yet more ignobility — an anti-rent control vote by a whole host of Democratic assembly members.

The alert came out on July 20 from the Coalition for Economic Survival, the Los Angeles organization born in the hey-day of the California tenants rights movement in the 1970s and 80s:

“California Liberal Assembly Democrats Provided Needed Votes to Pass Rent Control Measure,” the CES e-mail said.

The state assembly passed AB 761, which would permit landlords to raise rent, with no limit, on a mobile home space when the home sitting on it gets sold. A potential buyer would be on the hook for the purchase price of the home, plus hefty monthly rental fees.

It devalues the overall price of the mobile homes, says Larry Gross, Executive Director of CES.

Like most homeowners, those who own mobile units use them as a nest egg, drawing home equity lines of credit or selling it to move to less-expensive digs.

Should AB 761 become law, “Their nest egg has totally been exploded.” Gross says.

That’s bad. But the legislation is likely to bog down and die on the senate side. More disheartening than the measure’s passage in the assembly is its surprising array of supporters, including Assembly Speaker Bass.

That was a disappointing surprise. Bass comes from a solid progressive background as founder and architect of the Community Coalition, which has done serious grassroots base-building and won an impressive string of victories since 1993. She is thoughtful, bright, patient, has a sharp analysis and is in office truly to move the state in a progressive direction.

But even that’s not enough in California’s current political environment.

I wrote about Bass here when she was first named Speaker.

Her office responded quickly when I called the week of July 20 to ask about her reasoning. A communications staff person politely said they would be glad to talk after they wrapped up budget negotiations because they were so jammed with media requests related to the budget.

When I called again last week, a staffer took down the message, a phone number and my e-mail address and said someone would get back to me. As of Friday, no word.

I’ll speculate in the meantime that there is a relationship between the stalled budget and the liberal Democrats’ votes against rent control, that maybe some how those votes were traded for something to do with getting budget through.

I did check the list of Bass’ most recent campaign contributions and didn’t find any from donations from industry groups, so it wasn’t about that. I knew that had nothing to do with it.

All I can think of is the vote was part of the fruitless horse-trading that was going on. If that’s so, the Assembly members didn’t get much for their vote if the budget the legislature approved is any measure — it hammered education, and health care for children and seniors even before the governor got to it.

Legislators need outside grass-roots pressure — it supports their ability to do the right thing.

A tenants rights movement boiled up after the Prop 13 passed in 1978 because rental property taxes were drastically reduced and tenants had hoped their landlords would in turn roll back sky-high rental rates. Instead, many landlords jacked up the monthly rates.

Renters were mobilized and back then there was hell to pay (pickets, delegations, phone calls) for any legislator who voted against tenants’ interests. That’s not the case these days. Maybe everybody is spread too thin amid the present economic disaster.

Student, the disabled, elderly and unions all showed up and protested the budget cuts as they were going forward, so it’s not like Californians took it lying down.

But it’s going to take more long-range organizing to stop the annual foolishness and attacks on public services. There’s ongoing talk now about how to reform Prop 13, which has drained billions from California’s treasury since it passed in 1978 and re-set property taxes lower. Commercial property that rarely changes hands is still taxed at bargain-basement rates.

California’s got some good organizing going on. Check out SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education) or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) (coverage in Shelterforce here) or the “Partnership for Working Families”: http://www.communitybenefits.org/ affiliates up and down the state.

They are the basis for the long-term change that California desperately needs.

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