CA Forward's intentions awry

MAY 3, 2010

By KATY GRIMES

“There’s the perfect world, and then there is the political world where the majority party makes the rules,” said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, discussing the “reform” group California Forward. After first saying that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the political systems in place, Harkey explained that perfect world thinking does not work in politics.

The leaders of California Forward, claiming to be bipartisan, are working diligently to push through budget reforms for California. The most recent hearing was April 26, 2010 in the Assembly Committee on Budget.

According to Harkey, the original intent of the reform group is good, and many of the people involved have worthy intentions. However, as solid as some of the intentions are, politics has taken over, and dealing with reform California Forward-style is purely political now.

Harkey wants to know what happened to the original California Forward proposal, and why it changed so dramatically by the time it reached the Legislature.  California Forward’s proposal includes vote thresholds, late budget penalties cutting off legislator pay, performance-based budgeting and fiscal emergency budget powers for the governor. According to both Harkey and Assembly member Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks, the removal of the Sinclair Paint v. Board of Equalization as a taxing benchmark was a red flag and concession to Democrats. This provision requires that state taxes be enacted with a super-majority, or two-thirds, vote.

Some believe that California Forward is just an election year ploy. The timing is interesting and the hard sell on the Legislature is palpable. Members of California Forward are knocking on the door of every budget-related legislative committee, lobbying to advance their budget process changes.

California already has very clear budget process laws that the Legislature does not follow: The budget is due by June 30 every year, and the budget must be balanced. Harkey said that legislators have not been disciplined enough to follow the existing law and get the job done on time.

During the April 26 Assembly Committee on Budget, committee chair Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando, asked representatives of California Forward, “Don’t we already have a balanced budget requirement?”  Assemblyman Mike Feurer, D-Los Angeles,  replied “Yes, but we don’t get them.” Feurer is the author of ACA 4 and AB2591 which outlined the California Forward proposals.

The need for additional legislation when the laws are already in place but ignored is more of an issue for Harkey. In an Assembly Budget Committee hearing April 19, Harkey stated that the vote requirement change felt like a “scheme to get votes” and “a path to eliminate the two-thirds tax vote requirement.”

Harkey criticized the budget process as politicized and asked Feurer if the California Forward proposal addresses not just the late budget but the need to get budget language to the legislators sooner so they know what they are voting on.

“I have sat here for days and hours and had nothing to look at until the day of the vote,” said Harkey.  Harkey is recommending the need for a five-day print rule, so legislators at least receive the bill language five days prior to voting.

Committee member Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, said that he views the proposals by California Forward as a “dramatic shift in the balance of power,” enhancing the powers of the governor. Feurer explained that the power given to the governor in the proposal is only triggered if the Legislature “completely fails to act on the budget.”

Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, said that he supports the majority vote on the budget and the level of accounting within the California Forward proposal. California passed budgets for 50 years with the two-thirds vote, but in today’s hyper-partisanship climate, a majority vote makes sense, he said. Adams added that the majority party should be held accountable for the budget.

Harkey is also critical because of the exemptions the “pay-as-you-go” provision allows. “Pay-go” exempts Proposition 98 education funding, which is already 40 percent of the state’s budget. And a rumor heard at the Capitol is that the proposal obligates reimbursement for previous cuts made to the budget.

Applying the “best practices” of other cities and states to California may sound learned, the California Forward representatives always make sure to drop this phrase as part of their presentation.

California Forward Executive Director James Mayer described the proposals as guardrails for California. He said that legislators need to learn to say “no” and the California Forward proposals offer the firewall needed. Mayer said that Washington, Florida and Texas use the best, state-of-the-art fiscal practices, and California should as well. Mayer said California Forward will help prevent bad decisions by legislators.

Speaking more directly than some of her colleagues, Harkey said, “We should forget about all of this and just fix California,” about the time being spent on the California Forward proposals.  “People just want to be left alone right now,” she added. “Let them recover. The distrust in government needs to be overcome by legislators doing their jobs.”

Harkey is hopeful that before November, legislators will have a positive impact.

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