A proposal by five Republicans to Gov. Brown may point the way to a compromise spending plan.
Gov. Jerry Brown talks with reporters after meeting with state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to discuss the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, March 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Republican leaders in the Legislature haven't wavered in their public opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for closing the budget gap, but they may not have the last word on the subject.
Five Senate Republicans have suggested to Brown that they might break with their party and support the budget if Democrats agree to several significant changes in policy, including an inflexible cap on state spending, reduced pensions for state workers and restrictions on lawsuits. Ideally, this kind of concession extracting, which has become an annual ritual in Sacramento, would leaven the budget with reforms that make the cuts and tax extensions more palatable for voters. But it's not clear whether the senators are trying to do that or are just looking for a different excuse to vote no.
It's hard to judge their demands because they've provided few details publicly. In a March 7 letter to Brown, the lawmakers offered a "menu of reform options" that, in addition to the proposals above, calls for requiring state agencies to perform rigorous scientific and economic analyses before adopting new regulations, allowing private contractors to compete to perform tasks now done by state workers, overhauling the state tax code and reforming local redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones rather than eliminating them.
Some of these proposals seem ill-founded. It's hard to defend redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones, which aren't as effective as they should be in combating blight and spurring jobs. The Legislature agreed last year to put a spending cap on the 2012 ballot, so there's no point in refighting a battle Republicans already won.
The group is on more solid ground on pensions, regulations and civil service rules, all of which are ripe for reform. The question is whether the five will settle for smaller steps that make sense as part of a last-minute budget deal, or will hold out for sweeping changes that have no business being rushed through. For example, it's a good idea to stop public employees from inflating their pensions artificially, and to lift the cap on contributions to their health and retirement benefits. But lawmakers shouldn't agree to fundamental changes in retirement plans without a thorough vetting.
We don't fault the five senators for swinging for the fences. Judging by how Republicans have punished their legislators who voted for Democratic budgets in past years, it takes political courage just to step up to the bargaining table. And there's substance to many of their proposals. But time is short, and bad laws hastily written in the name of reform are still bad laws.