From the Publisher: Real men would have a budget by now

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Arnold G. York

The state budget negotiations stalled last week and everyone started pointing fingers. This past weekend the governor took to the campaign trail and branded the Democratic legislators “Girlie Men,” which in certain political precincts was not perceived as a particularly friendly gesture. As I write this column the state still has no budget and the partisan fires are burning bright.

With all of the finger pointing it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s show biz; so here’s my take on what’s really going on. I’ve struggled with how to explain it, so go with me for a bit on this example.

The governor, like any political executive, has something I’m going to call a “Political Capital Account.” It’s very similar to money in the bank. Lots of things go to build that capital account. Popularity builds the account, and the governor’s popularity is very high now, so the account balance is high. Cash is also a big factor because it allows you to buy TV time or give money to candidates for office, and the governor raises money easily. Star power doesn’t hurt and being an Alpha male is definitely a plus, and he has both. Past successes build the account balance and the governor has had a number of successes like the $15 billion bond issue and worker’s compensation reform. Negative things can also build that balance. A reputation for toughness, a bit of ruthlessness and a willingness to crush anyone who crosses you is also part of that capital account.

On the other side of the ledger, there are things that reduce a capital account. Doing nothing will reduce that account. When faced with a problem, the governor must act. If he doesn’t, his political capital, which impacts his ability to solve a problem, will dissipate. That was one of Gray Davis’s problems. He was unwilling or unable to act and he let his political capital slip away. Until recently Gov. Arnold was willing to act and also to gamble. In other words, he was willing to spend some of his political capital, and he was perceived as a strong and virtually unbeatable leader. Now understand, nobody can stay with a full account forever. Just like your bank account, deposits and withdrawals go on constantly and the balance moves up or down accordingly. As governor you have to make decisions and some people are not going to be happy. That’s unavoidable. As he does things that are either unpopular or difficult or offend some portion of the voters, he spends some of that political capital.

So what’s changed in the last week or so in the governor’s budget negotiation that’s driving down his capital account?

For one thing, he failed to understand that it’s not the governor’s budget-it’s the state’s budget. And legislators get very strange about the budget. Legislative control of the purse strings is one of those things through practice and long tradition that legislators treat as practically sacred. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the State Legislature or the U.S. Congress, or whether it’s Democratically controlled or Republican controlled. Legislative bodies hang onto their budget powers ferociously and don’t surrender them to a governor or president without a brawl.

So the budget battle, in a bad economic year as now, is always a tough battle for any governor, even within his own party. The governor started proceeding with the budget as if it was his budget. He made deals directly with some individual stakeholders-educators, cities, counties and prison guards-without the input of the Legislative leaders. You really can’t blame the governor for proceeding as he did because the Legislature gave no indication it would block him. Everything seemed to be moving toward a deal, and then the governor made a couple of mistakes. He made a deal with the cities and the counties, which require a constitutional change. The legislature balked, even though Schwarzenegger had already shaken on the deal. In other words, on that one, Gov. Arnold promised more than he could deliver, which was probably just a bit of a rookie mistake. He also had a major negotiation with the prisons guard to try and take back some of the giveaways from Gray Davis. Instead, he came away with not much more than Davis had. Suddenly, there was a perception in the Legislature that Gov. Arnold needed to be liked more than he needed to solve the budget problems. He was not prepared to spend too much of his political capital, in this case his popularity, by going toe to toe with the prison guard union, which has heavy Republican support. So suddenly, the opposition stiffened

What happens next is that there will be some hemming and hawing, and we will get a budget. It won’t be a very good budget because the perception is that all it does is push the problems off onto later years, which is exactly what got Gray Davis into trouble. It will seriously deplete Gov. Arnold’s political capital account because many in the Legislature now believe he may be a paper tiger and afraid to lose. Politics is a funny business. They’ll argue with you, beg you and beseech you to give a bit and be reasonable. Then when you do, behind your back they’ll say, “He has no cojones.”

So now the governor has to do something to refill his capital account. Look for him to perform some sort of a blood sacrifice just to convince everyone he can’t be trifled with. It could be campaigning for Republican Legislative candidates, or raising lots of money for their races. Perhaps it will be a ballot initiative to make the Legislature part time or something similar.

Stay tuned. It’s just beginning.