Chiang’s move, maybe or maybe not legally defensible (we’ll find out, because legislators are planning to mount a legal challenge to the Controller’s decision), is turning the budget negotiations into even more of a headline-grabbing farce. It is also a distraction from what should be the real three issues:
1) What are the structural problems with California's political system that make passing a budget such an intractable process, and how can we reform these?
2) What responsibilities do we have, as people and as members of a shared community, to each other and to those with relatively less power (the elderly, the young, the poor, the sick, the socially marginalised, those living on the economic brink, etc)?
3) What do we need to do, in terms of budgeting, spending, etc, to realise those responsibilities?
What any use of Proposition 58 amounts to (because presumably that is Chiang’s justification for judging the Democrats’ budget un-balanced) within our current political framework is an endorsement of the right-wing attack that Republicans have been mounting on our social and economic infrastructure and safety nets. Because, given the Republican Party’s power to obstruct the state’s revenue flow at the same time that voters call for high-quality education, effective environmental regulations, an innovate energy sector and a conscionable social welfare system, what Proposition 58 does is order a damaging cuts-oriented budget.
Chiang has been praised for executing the will of the people, commentators operating under the misguided assumption that he is enforcing the proposition passed last year which docks lawmakers’ pay if they fail to pass a budget on time. But is in this erroneous reading of events that Chiang’s populist opportunism really comes to the surface. The proposition passed last November made no mention of a balanced budget. Chiang is relying on older legal provisions, and although he has been Controller since January of 2007, he has never before chosen to take any kind of legal action on the question of the budget.
Why action now and not then? Because the brand of California’s politicians is severely deflated (fairly or not—much responsibility lies with ill-informed voters), and Chiang is eager to take advantage of the moment to restore a little lustre to his own, perhaps with his eye on a higher office. But his personal popularity comes at a high price: if he had his way, we would pass a budget that takes a wrecking ball to our education system and our social infrastructure. [According to an informal NPR poll, I’m amongst a meagre 2.8% who wouldn’t call Chiang a ‘hero’ for docking legislators’ pay!]
I understand why people are frustrated by the inability of California’s politicians to put out a timely and balanced budget. What I do not understand, however, is the persistent ignorance that allows people, year after year, to mis-assign blame for this situation, and to fail to see that it is our state’s political structure which makes this. The combination of an extremist Republican Party, Minority Rule, the standard division of powers between legislature and executive and the proposition system mean that legislators don’t actually have anything like total control of the budgetary process.
I strongly suspect that if Jerry Brown had not vetoed the budget, Chiang would have let it stand, allowed analysts and legislators to iron out mathematical errors and inconsistencies, and gone forward from there. But he is instead grovelling before a testy and un-informed electorate, at the very moment when politicians should be trying to clarify the budgetary process to the public, so that people understand their role in creating this mess.
Through Proposition 13, voters have denied the state what was long its most significant and stable revenue source for years. Through votes on a range of projects which would necessitate spending, voters have called on legislators to invest in transportation and energy projects. Through their backing of Minority Rule, which requires a two-thirds vote to pass any revenue increases, voters have guaranteed that the ever more right-wing state Republican Party will, with its 34-38% of legislators, be able to hold up budgets indefinitely.
I suspect that Chiang’s move was motivated more by concern for his own political future than for the social and economic future of our state, and I fear that his actions will have damaging repercussions.