Cavala: A Modest Proposal

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The Republicans in California’s Legislature have been in the minority so long they have forgotten what it means. They have seized upon the quirk in California’s Constitution that requires a 2/3rds vote to pass a budget and raise general taxes to argue that they should have an equal say in public policy without winning that right in State elections.

When Democrats use their majority position to dominate policy outcomes, the Republicans complain about the “lack of respect” shown their minority position. Their own lack of respect for majority rule goes by the board.

Bound by the unit rule, the 29 Members of the Republican Caucus in the Assembly are controlled by a faction of 15. Those 15, protected in safe Republican seats and guarded editorially by the Orange County Register and San Diego Union-Tribune, can espouse ideologies rejected by voters in most of the other 65 districts.

California’s Governor, also a Republican, has the most legitimate cache to speak for Republican voters on a statewide basis. But he is castigated as a ‘Republican in name only’ by the members of his own party in the Legislature. In the latest set of budget disputes, the Governor could command exactly ‘zero’ votes among either incoming or outgoing Republican Members.

The result: the Governor will lend legitimacy to the Democratic effort to transform taxes into fees.

Frothing, Republicans and their allies in various anti-tax groups threaten lawsuits. But the truth is, the legal path taken by the Democrats has been apparent (and legal) for years. It was not trod in the past for a number of reasons – among them the assumption that Democratic restraint would be met by Republican flexibility when budget votes required a supermajority.

The decision not to provide such flexibility but, instead, to overplay their hand has cut them loose from the leader of their own Party on the one hand, and from the need for restraint on the part of the majority Party on the other hand.

Assembly Speakers have always ceded various privileges to the Republicans because of the need for their votes at budget time – and protected themselves from dissension within their own caucus and from obstreperous behavior in the House by doing so. But when those privileges are asserted as rights and policy equality demanded as the price for those budget votes, then the stakes have been raised to the point where faked civility and pleasantries are not worth the price.

Republicans have been awarded the right to use a percentage of the Assembly’s budget to hire their own staff. Money could be saved by eliminating duplicated staff positions and having all staff hired by the Majority Party.

Motions on the floor that are designed to obstruct proceedings (points of order, personal privilege, parliamentary inquiry and the like) could be required to be submitted in writing in advance. Motions to appeal decisions of the presiding officer could again be required to be submitted in writing, signed by a majority of the voting members. Current custom during floor debates that use proponents and opponents could be jettisoned without harm as the presiding officer made a determination about who should speak and for what duration. Efforts to amend on the floor could be limited by utilizing the custom of the House of Representatives that sets rules for the debate of each bill.

Such actions would have the effect of eliminating the “soapbox” the Republicans have used over the years to try and effect public opinion. They could, of course, still call press conferences – if they could find a room in which to hold it.

Opponents of such action would point out that in July, when Republican votes are needed to pass a spending plan, demands for the restoration of these privileges would be the first order of business.

But, of course, that’s just the point: the existing privileges were granted in the first instance with the understanding that there would be cooperation and flexibility at budget time. Six months without staff or the ability to speak effectively might restore a sense of the value of those privileges.

And, among other benefits, it would free the Governor from his current need to negotiate only with Democrats because of Republican inflexibility.

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970’s while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.

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