You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Minority Report

California Conservatives Are Down, But They're Far From Out

On August 21, California legislators ended a 51-day standoff and agreed to a $145 billion budget for the 2007-2008 fiscal year. 14 Republican members of the state Senate had engineered the gridlock by refusing to provide the final vote needed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for passage of the budget.

With the immediate crisis averted, the state can resume payments to the clinics, nursing homes, child-care centers, and other social-service providers whose funding was suspended when the legislature failed to agree on a budget by the July 1 constitutional deadline. But the budget clash shows that while California Republicans may be down, they are far from out.

The partisan squabbles in Sacramento were a far cry from last year's amicable legislating. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature's Democratic majority agreed on legislation to increase the minimum wage and combat global warming. For the first time in six years the budget was approved before the deadline, and it was widely lauded for limiting spending growth while meeting the state's most pressing needs, like higher education, transportation, and debt repayment. "We should be proud of this budget," gushed Fabian Núñez, the Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, the lower house of the legislature. His Republican counterpart, George Plescia, was more muted but still supportive, judging it "about the best deal we could get this year."

California voters noticed. In November's election, they delivered a strong and unusually precise message: yes to Schwarzenegger's brand of post-partisanship, no to the hard-edged conservatism of the rest of the state GOP. (And, for that matter, no to the traditional big-government liberalism of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Angelides.) Exit polling revealed a remarkably satisfied electorate: 62 percent of voters said they thought the state was on the right track, up dramatically from 27 percent on the date of the recall election in 2003. Schwarzenegger was re-elected with more than 55 percent of the vote and was joined in victory by moderate Republican Steve Poizner, the party's technocratic nominee for insurance commissioner. But every conservative running for statewide office was defeated, including Tom McClintock, the patron saint of the California right since his bid for governor in the recall election, who was running for lieutenant-governor. Tony Quinn, a Republican strategist, termed the 2006 election "the end of the conservative Republican statewide in California." He said, "As long as the grass grows and the wind blows, we will never see another one of them elected statewide."

In the legislature, conservatives retained their seats, thanks in large part to California's heavily gerrymandered districts. (Republicans hold 32 of 80 seats in the Assembly and 15 of 40 in the Senate, with conservatives significantly outnumbering moderates in both caucuses.) But whereas in previous years they had grudgingly acquiesced to Schwarzenegger's agenda, despite complaining that their concerns were being ignored, now they closed ranks in opposition and vowed to block it. The day after the election, Assembly Republicans dumped Plescia, whom they deemed too deferential, and replaced him with Michael Villines, a hard-liner from the Fresno area. Freed from the need to act as responsible partners in governing the state, they began picking fights with Schwarzenegger over even routine matters --blocking his appointees to the state's community-college oversight board, for example. And they geared up for the summer budget battle, the blockbuster legislative event of the year in Sacramento.

Under Villines's leadership, Republicans in the Assembly extracted major concessions from the Democratic majority before agreeing to the budget on July 20. The plan curtailed funding for liberal priorities like child care and mass transit. "Make no mistake: the Assembly-passed budget is a Republican budget," wrote columnist George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times.

When it came time for Senate Republicans to consider the bill, they pushed even further. They managed to extract concessions from Democrats on a number of items unrelated to the budget, including legislation to limit the ability of Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown to file lawsuits combating global warming, more money for rural school districts, and a bail-out for railroad companies facing steep pollution-mitigation costs. Republicans also forced Schwarzenegger to agree to use his line-item veto to cut an additional $700 million in state spending.

And the budget impasse may just be a prelude to even bigger battles to come. The next big issue the legislature is set to tackle is Schwarzenegger's $12 billion universal health care proposal. Most Democrats would prefer something more ambitious, but they will probably end up supporting the governor's plan. The bill will almost certainly require a new source of revenue, though, which would trigger the two-thirds threshold to pass (a two-thirds vote in both houses is required for any tax increase)--meaning it would need some Republican votes, which are not likely to be forthcoming. "The most lasting impact of the budget fight is going to be felt in the health care debate. The Republicans are going to have a big say," said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

This state of affairs seems unlikely to change anytime soon, as Republicans in the legislature aren't in danger of being voted out of office. The only realistic way to limit the power of the Republican minority, therefore, would be to change the legislature's rules to allow budgets and tax increases to pass with a simple majority, rather than the current two-thirds. But such reform could only be enacted in a statewide ballot initiative, since it would never pass the legislature itself.

The most recent such effort, Proposition 56 on the March 2004 ballot, failed decisively, garnering only 34 percent of the vote. Though it leans Democratic, the California electorate has proven unwilling to endorse this type of procedural reform, particularly when opponents can reasonably claim that a major consequence of the initiative would be to make it easier to raise taxes. Voters might be more open to a new initiative in light of the recent gridlock, but it remains a long shot.

The person most likely to convince voters to rein in the power of the legislature's Republican minority is Schwarzenegger. With approval ratings hovering around 60 percent, the governor retains a deep reservoir of political capital. "If the governor were to get behind an initiative like that, it would really change things," said Kousser.

So far, Schwarzenegger has avoided an all-out fight with the conservative wing of his party, opposing initiatives like Proposition 56 and declining to endorse centrist Republicans in primaries. But the budget crisis may have changed his mind. "I think that everyone now has come to the conclusion--all the leaders--that we must work, as soon as the budget is over, on a system that allows us to have a budget on time," he said as the stalemate dragged on. "If that means we should go and shoot for, as some suggested, a simple majority to pass the budget rather than a two-thirds vote, maybe that's the solution." The day after the budget was finally approved, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to Don Perata, the Democratic leader in the Senate, calling for the creation of a commission that would study options to reform the process.

It remains to be seen whether Schwarzenegger will truly support the reform effort. In the meantime, though, the events of the past two months should put to rest the notion that conservatives in California need to be in the majority--or even in the state's political mainstream--to exert sizable influence in Sacramento.