Michael Winship: My state Legislature’s crazier than yours
California should just be done with it and rename the entire state “Neverland Ranch.”
This serves several useful purposes. It would be the ultimate tribute to Michael Jackson, pleasing his most ardent and bereft fans. It would further validate the state’s Cloud Cuckoo, fairy tale reputation, thus probably promoting additional, revenue-generating tourism. And it would stand as an accurate metaphor for the state government’s airheaded inability to cope with its current financial disaster.
Last Wednesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that California’s deficit has grown to $26.3 billion and proposed billions of additional cuts to education. He declared a fiscal emergency, triggering an automatic 45-day deadline for the state Legislature to come up with a plan to cover the shortfall and balance the budget. If that fails, they’re banned from considering any other legislation until they come up with a solution.
Arnold also signed an executive order forcing the state’s 220,000 employees to take a third, unpaid furlough day every month. This, after weeks of failed proposals, threatened vetoes, political contortionism, suspended social programs — a fiscal train wreck of such proportions that last Thursday the state planned on starting to pay its bills with IOU’s instead of cash.
It’s “an institutional breakdown,” according to State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat. Lockyer has called for professional mediation to unjam talks between legislators and Gov. Terminator, and even a two-tiered budget system that would raise taxes and allot resources differently for different parts of the state.
That may sound crazy, but this is California. Besides, we in New York State are in no position to cast stones. Our state Senate has degenerated into a slaphappy free-for-all that resembles a drunken demolition derby more than anything remotely like a deliberative body.
On June 8, two Democratic state senators, both of whom are under investigation on an assortment of charges, defected to the other side of the aisle, giving the Republicans a 32-30 majority. Then one of the Democrats changed what was left of his mind and went back, creating a 31-31 split and deadlock.
Under normal circumstances, the lieutenant governor, who also serves as Senate president, could break a tie. But currently, we don’t have one of those. David Paterson had the job until he was elevated to the top spot when Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught engaged in commercialized bedhopping and resigned.
Because neither side can come up with the requisite 32 members for a quorum, the Senate disintegrated into a series of alternating, one-party sessions during which nothing could be accomplished. Although on June 30, when Democrats spotted Republican member Frank Padavan walking through the rear of the chamber, they seized on the moment, claiming a quorum, and started ramming through legislation, which the Republicans say was illegal. Padavan says he was just taking a shortcut for a cup of coffee.
Imagine “West Side Story” meets “Duck Soup,” with the Marx Brothers playing the Sharks and Jets, using whoopee cushions instead of switchblades, and you get the general idea, but despite all the foolishness, as in California, this is serious stuff with potentially dire consequences.
As The New York Times reports, June 30 “was the expiration date of more than a dozen statutes that authorize local governments to carry out their everyday duties, from planning budgets to collecting taxes … officials around the state were left to ponder contingency plans that they never thought they would need.”
What’s also infuriating is the way certain enabled individuals consciously are helping stymie any possible breakthrough. In California, it’s Gov. Schwarzenegger, whose veto threats, blocking of short-term loans, and refusal to raise any tax or virtually any fee have thrown additional wooden shoes into the works.
In New York, it’s not the governor, who has tried to break gridlock but whose efficacy is virtually nil and popularity is south of “get lost.” It’s upstate billionaire businessman Tom Golisano, a gadfly who, according to the Times, helped broker the defection of the two Senate Democrats that precipitated the current mess. Apparently, he did so out of pique over proposed tax hikes on the wealthy.
It’s all a nasty game that puts cronyism, partisan bickering and corrupt, despicable self-interest above the needs of increasingly desperate citizens. Especially abhorrent as we celebrate the country’s independence and commemorate that long ago struggle against abuses of power.
At least Brooklyn Democratic state Sen. John Sampson, when asked last week if he was embarrassed about the situation, had the grace to reply, “Embarrassed? That’s an understatement. We’re ashamed.”
Messenger Post columnist Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal," which airs Friday on PBS.