Did California budget deficit sink Wisconsin recall?

June 1, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

New York Times journalist Frank Rich once wrote about the spectacle that surrounded the recall of former California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003:

“Eastern snobs who airily condescended to the spectacle as merely another example of Left-coast madness just didn’t get it. As California goes so goes the nation. It’s Disneyland that prefigures the future, and the action-packed recall ride was nothing if not the apotheosis of the Magic Kingdom.  It was fun. It was instructive. And it set off a chain of unanticipated consequences whose full meaning will become apparent only with time.”

In 2003, former Gov. Gray Davis was facing a nearly $21.1 billion budget deficit, alongside the aftermath of the California Energy Crisis of 2001. California eventually had to issue a $15 billion general obligation bond authorized under Proposition 57 to pay off the budget deficit. It also ended up entering into long-term energy contracts to pay off $42 billion in unpaid bonds on old power plants mothballed to clean the air in 2001, which caused the resulting energy crisis.

Little did Rich know what he was writing about in 2003 might foreshadow the May 16, 2012 announcement that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was pulling financial support from the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  This coincidentally came on the heels of Gov. Jerry Brown’s May 12 announcement that California’s budget deficit had ballooned out of control from about $9 billion in January to $16 billion in May.

Was it purely coincidental that these two events were near in time? We don’t know for sure. But Wisconsin public opinion polls showed a 9 percent gap in opinion polls had opened up between the DNC’s recall candidate and Gov. Walker.

Walker recall diminishes

All of a sudden Wisconsin had become Frank Rich’s Tomorrowland.  At one point in 2011, Calwatchdog.com managing editor John Seiler aptly asked: “Will Wisconsin Protests Come to California?”  But following the “law of unanticipated consequences” mentioned by Rich, what happened was the reverse: California’s budget deficit may have sunk any real chances of the Democratic Party to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

When California voters passed Proposition 25 in Nov. 2010, the legislature was given the power to pass a budget with only a majority vote; little did they know what the consequence of that might be in Wisconsin. Writing in the Orange County Register on March 10, 2011, Daniel Weintraub stated: “Democrats are learning that a power they have long sought — to pass a budget with a majority vote — might not be the lever they thought it was going to be… With a Democrat in the governor’s office, that should make for easy sailing for a Democrat-driven budget plan.  But something very different is happening.”

What galvanized the Tea Party to take so many seats in Congressional races across the U.S. in 2010 was not only the issue of Obamacare.  It was also the prospect of other states having to pick up the cost to bail out California’s enormous budget deficit and debts. Did Wisconsin voters see “California coming and got scared” as James Brady once famously put it?  It sure looks like it.  Wisconsin finally found a function for all of California’s political dysfunction.

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