New governor, same old mess

California is about to get a new governor, but the situation in the state Capitol is not likely to change much in the months ahead.

If early returns hold up and Jerry Brown becomes the state’s next chief executive, he will inherit a budget shortfall that will probably be about $15 billion to $20 billion on a $90 billion general fund. And he will be trying to work with a deeply divided Legislature, with Democrats holding strong control but Republicans still able to block any tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote for passage.

The Democrats will likely be emboldened by their party’s ability to hold off a Republican tide that swept most of the rest of the nation Tuesday. But the Republicans will likely be emboldened by that very same tide, hoping that the same ideas that Republicans ran and won on elsewhere Tuesday will eventually take root in California.

Brown says he will work to develop personal relationships with lawmakers. He has never been known as a warm and fuzzy schmoozer. But even if Brown could get develop those ties, he will still find it difficult to persuade Republicans to raise taxes or Democrats to cut deeply into programs they value. And he will need to do both if he hopes to make any more progress in balancing the budget than has the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Brown has said he will not raise taxes without a vote of the people. But he would need Republican votes even to put a tax increase on the ballot in 2011, because the bill to do so would be an urgency measure requiring a two-thirds super-majority for passage. He could do it with a majority vote through a special session, or take his program to the voters via an initiative. Schwarzenegger tried that in 2005 that and failed. Schwarzenegger even failed later, in 2009, when he had some Republican support for the budget package he put before the voters. It’s unlikely that Brown could do better without bipartisan support, and it’s unlikely he will get that.*

If the early vote on Proposition 25 holds up, meanwhile, Democrats in the Capitol might live to regret the day they won the right to pass a budget on a majority vote.

Since they wouldn’t also be able to pass tax increases, Democrats would be in the position of having the power to pass a budget but not the desire to do so. Any budget they could pass on their own would be one that closes a massive deficit without new revenue. That’s a power they certainly would not be eager to exercise. But the public will be expecting them to pass the budget on time since they would now have the power to do so, without Republican votes. Not a great position for them to be in.

No matter how all these machinations play out, the next year will not be a good one for people who depend on the state’s health and social services. More cuts are likely coming. And even if the Democrats find a way to raise taxes, somehow, those revenues would likely do little more than preserve the status quo.

Things are going to be ugly in Sacramento for a while.

*Note: This paragraph was updated or reflect the fact that the Legislature could place a measure on the ballot with a majority vote if it met in special session.

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