National Opinions

Dan Walters: California's chronic crisis

There are two distinct although obviously connected aspects to the agreement that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders forged on closing the state's whopping budget deficit.

There is the deal itself, a complex mélange of new taxes, borrowed money, spending reductions and bookkeeping maneuvers that's still being drafted. We know generally what's in the deal, but we still don't know all the details, including the side deals.

It's still very uncertain whether the Legislature will muster the requisite votes to pass it. Even if lawmakers act, many of the deal's provisions would hinge on voters' approving a series of ballot measures later in the year.

All in all, therefore, it's really too early to judge whether this agreement could begin to clean up California's fiscal mess or is merely another exercise in political expediency that will collapse of its own weight, as so many panic-tinged budget deals have done in the past.

Then there is the process by which this agreement has forged private negotiations among five people that completely bypassed long-established procedures for budget-writing, including committee hearings, public testimony and extensive reviews by the media.

"We felt that this is the only way we could solve the largest budget deficit in the state's history," says Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Perhaps so, but it's also a questionable regression to the secretive and corrupt budget process that dominated the Capitol for decades until transparency was introduced in the 1970s.

The "Big 5" phenomenon the governor and four legislative leaders meeting privately originally evolved to settle a few outstanding issues as budgets became more complicated. But it has expanded year by year to the current point of being the sole process for writing a budget.

Concurrently, as writing a budget has once again slipped behind closed doors, we have seen an explosion of so-called "budget trailer bills," often hastily drafted and passed with little or no disclosure of their contents. They have become vehicles for giving goodies to well connected interest groups, often with no relationship to the budget.

The rationale for this year's version of "Big 5" is that the extraordinary crisis required secrecy so that participants would be free to explore avenues that might be unpopular with powerful interest groups. In fact, however, while the public and media were kept in the dark, those involved remained in touch with interest group lobbyists, sometimes stepping out of negotiations to confer via cellphone.

The fiscal woes will continue and the temptation to write budgets secretly will be difficult to resist. And if we can't formulate budgets with at least a modicum of transparency, it's another symptom of California's chronic crisis of governance.

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.