Illustration by Juan Alvarado
As Gray Davis finished his victory speech last November, a small group of Republicans looked into the near future and saw an economy in the tank, a Legislature hopelessly deadlocked and voters so filled with disgust that they just might be ready for something drastic. A recall petition campaign against the governor so soon after his re-election may have seemed like a long shot, but here we are.
A small group of Democrats and public-employee union leaders listened to the same speech, saw the same economy, predicted the same deadlock, felt the same disgust and came up with a much different petition of their own. Over the last two months, union members and paid signature gatherers have been camping outside grocery stores and walking door-to-door to win support for a constitutional amendment to make it easier to push through a state budget.
The Budget Accountability Act is the less-famous, less-glamorous, less fun-loving fraternal twin of the Davis recall. It is all numbers and deadlines and penalties, and members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who have thrust their clipboards at cheerful shoppers ready to sign up for recall report being met with disappointment and puzzled stares. Recall is easy to understand. It comes with intrigue, movie stars and worldwide media coverage. Lowering the legislative threshold for approving a state budget from 66.7 percent to 55 percent, requiring an emergency reserve fund when money is available, suspending legislation pending final budget action, holding up pay to elected officials when the budget is late — that’s another story altogether.
SEIU took the lead in championing the Budget Accountability Act as a way to prevent hard-liners from scuttling a budget for political ends, as Democrats in the Legislature accuse Republicans of having done this year. Democrats already enjoy a supermajority in each house, but Republicans cling to just over a third of the seats. That leaves them out in the cold on most legislation, but with a constitutional requirement of two-thirds to approve a budget, Republicans enjoy virtual veto power at budget time. With a smaller 55 percent requirement, Democrats would have signed off on a Davis budget months ago. The governor still would not be loved, but he also might not be fighting off 247 potential candidates who want his job.
Only Rhode Island and Arkansas join California in requiring a two-thirds vote to approve a budget.
Petitions are still circulating for the act, which would not appear on the October 7 ballot with the recall and the latest Ward Connerly initiative but would go instead on the March ballot, alongside the presidential primary. The SEIU and its partners have until early next week to gather the requisite 598,105 signatures to qualify the measure.
The Budget Accountability Act — even its acronym, BAA, is sleep-inducing — is a transcendent step into activism for the SEIU, which has grown strong over the last decade but focused its efforts until now almost exclusively on actions that would directly improve the lot of union members. It is joined in the effort by the League of Women Voters, a host of labor groups, and health-insurance-reform advocates.
“This hopefully is what acting like the biggest union in California looks like,” said Julie Butcher of SEIU Local 347, which represents workers in Los Angeles and several smaller cities.
Union leaders expected a hard fight, but 22 focus groups and four polls convinced them they could pass the initiative, according to campaign consultant Gale Kaufman. But the recall took them by surprise. Now unions are pouring resources into a spirited defense of Davis, who generally has been a friend to labor in California.
Annelle Grajeda, general manager of SEIU Local 660, the Los Angeles County Employees Association, said the union can defend Davis and back the constitutional amendment at the same time.
“The recall and the Budget Accountability Act are separate issues, but I don’t think they take away from each other,” said Grajeda, who is president of the SEIU state council. “We will stand behind Gray.”
The county Board of Supervisors already signed on to the initiative, and the Los Angeles City Council is expected to take the same step shortly on a motion brought in last Friday by Martin Ludlow. Council President Alex Padilla said cities and counties were hurt most by budget deadlock and delay, but that the recall, which he opposes, will help the Budget Accountability Act to pass because “more people will tune in” to what’s going on in state politics. “And I don’t think it’s any secret that in the last couple of months people have talked about the effects of a threatened recall and what was going on in budget negotiations in Sacramento in the same sentence,” Padilla said.
Kaufman insists the recall helps “in a kind of perverse way,” since the same grassroots anger that sparks the drive against Davis will need a new outlet after October 7, whether or not he retains his seat. “When the next budget comes up in January and the problems become clear,” Kaufman said, “I think what will be on people’s minds in March is not whatever happened in October.”
Not everyone agrees. Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum said the act is clearly aimed at eliminating Republicans from the budget process, offers nothing to get them on board, and has little chance of passing without them.
“I do not see them under any circumstances giving the Democratic majority increased power without some sort of quid pro quo,” Hoffenblum said. He cited spending caps and a new redistricting process, handled by judges instead of the majority party, as good examples.
In fact, Hoffenblum said, redistricting got the state into its mess in the first place by giving members of both parties secure districts, allowing Republicans to lean to the far right and Democrats to the far left. With no moderates in the Legislature, he said, and no real district contests between Democrats and Republicans, there is no impetus for members to reach any budget compromises.
Even before the initiative has qualified for the ballot, it has attracted opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and a collection of oil and tobacco companies. The largest single donor so far to a group known as Californians Against Higher Taxes is Chevron/Texaco, which has put up $55,000. BP Corporation chipped in another $15,000, while State Farm, Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris, the California Building Industry Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Personal Insurance Federation of California each came up with $10,000.
Not all Democrats back the measure. Bernard Parks, who chairs the City Council’s budget committee, said it makes sense to require a two-thirds vote on significant financial issues. “I believe if you’re talking about how ever many billions of dollars the state budget is, it’s worthy of 60-plus percent of the people agreeing what direction the state finances should go in,” Parks said.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky strongly supports the initiative and says it will reverse the Sacramento gamesmanship that has kept counties from passing their own budgets. But he wonders whether the voters’ anger can be harnessed by amending the budget process — or even by recalling the governor.
“There’s a serious rebellion brewing,” Yaroslavsky said. “There’s something more brewing here than just a $1 million check from Darrell Issa. I have a déjà vu feeling about this. This looks like Proposition 13. There came a point that no matter what you said and who said it, people do not want to hear it anymore. And for people on the East Coast who think it’s just wacky California, I’ve got news for them: This show’s coming to theaters and drive-ins near them.”