Friday, March 27, 2009

Queer Democrats Oppose Flagship Budget Compromise Proposition

Club Splits Difference, Supports Three of the Six-Measure Package


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved


Christine Kehoe on May 15, 2008 — the night San Diego’s Queer community celebrated the California Supreme Court’s decision to grant same-sex couples marriage equality, later reversed by the state’s voters as Proposition 8

Carlos Marquez on March 4, 2009 — outside the San Diego County Courthouse at a marriage equality rally urging the California Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club decisively rejected Proposition 1A, flagship measure of the six issues to be decided by California voters May 19 as part of a legislative deal made last January to revise the state budget in light of lower-than-expected revenues due to the nationwide recession. The measure, worked out by legislative leaders and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and passed with the bare minimum of Republican support required by the state’s two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget, would extend the temporary sales tax increase and income-tax surcharge in the budget deal from two years to four. But it would also put 12.5 percent of the state’s general fund in future years into the Budget Stabilization Fund — the so-called “rainy day fund” — where it would be unavailable for future spending except when an economic emergency required it.

The club’s voters split on the five other issues Californians will face on the May 19 ballot. The club endorsed Proposition 1B, which will restore money previously taken away from the guaranteed funding to schools under Proposition 98 — but only if 1A passes as well. It also endorsed Proposition 1E, which reallocates money from mental-health programs funded under Proposition 63 to free up more of the general fund for other programs; and Proposition 1F, which prevents state legislators from receiving any pay raises during years when the state is running a budget deficit. The club opposed Proposition 1D, which would allow the state to tap into the children’s health care fund created by a previous ballot measure in order to help balance the current budget; and took no position on Proposition 1C, which would allow the state to borrow from the California Lottery to balance the current budget.

The club opposed Proposition 1A despite a plea in support of it from one of the club’s most beloved politicians, State Senator Christine Kehoe. She acknowledged the flaws in the measure but said that, given how the legislative majority is hamstrung by the two-thirds vote requirement for a budget deal, it was the best the Democrats in the legislature could do. “This budget is the first in 18 years to include new revenues,” she said. “Some people will argue the spending caps [under 1A] will hurt the disabled and elderly, but if we are not able to get the additional revenues, you will have harder gaps in services to close. This is the best budget we can get with Republican votes. If they don’t pass, future budgets will mean more borrowing and more cuts in services. This is very, very important stuff for the future of our state. This is the best we can do with the hand we were dealt. As long as we have the two-thirds requirement, this is the only way we can get Republican votes for revenue increases.”

However, due to her schedule Kehoe had to make her speech well before the club’s debate on the propositions — and by the time that happened, she was long gone and the initiative fell to the club’s fundraising co-chair, Carlos Marquez. Co-chair of the San Diego chapter of Pride at Work, a nationwide organization designed to build coalitions between the Queer community and organized labor, Marquez came to the meeting with a set of flip charts to illustrate his prepared presentation against 1A. Though he had to trim his 10-minute talk due to time constraints on the meeting, enough other 1A opponents yielded their time to him that he got to say most of what he wanted.

“Our state has been in some critical situations,” Marquez began. “We have been facing a budget crisis for some time.” Marquez said that only 30 percent of the January budget deal involved additional revenues; 36 percent was in spending cuts in state programs, 13 percent in new borrowing by an already heavily indebted state, 2 percent in promised line-item vetoes by Governor Schwarzenegger and 19 percent in funds the state is expecting under the federal stimulus plan President Obama recently pushed through Congress. He also pointed out that as part of their agreement to the budget deal, the handful of Republicans who voted for it pushed through lower taxes for corporations through a new option in how they can be taxed. “Now they can tax themselves by sales or assets, and if your sales are largely out of state it’s cheaper to be taxed on your assets,” he explained. “This tax break will cost $650 million the first year and $1.5 billion each year after that.”

Marquez said that the revenue increases were themselves highly regressive — higher sales taxes, vehicle registration fees and an income-tax surcharge, all of which will hit the poor harder than the rich — and in exchange for an additional two years of these temporary tax increases the Democratis leaders in the legislature “sold us out” by agreeing to a “permanent spending cap” that “gives the governor unilateral power to cut any program he sees fit. It requires a deposit of 3 percent annually to the budget stabilization fund based on a 10-year sample of programmatic declines.” In other words, he explained, the base years on which the spending cap will be determined are the first 10 years of the 21st century — years in which a Republican governor (since 2003) and legislative minority already forced major cutbacks in state programs. If 1A fails, Marquez said, the additional taxes will still be in effect for two years and “we will have two years to elect a legislature that will do its job.”

Club members who supported 1A argued much the way Kehoe had — that it’s a bad measure but what will happen if it loses will be even worse. If 1A fails, former club president Doug Case said, “we’re going to lose the $16 billion in additional revenue for four years, and it will destroy the state health care system. You’d better pass 1A because it will be a disaster for the health care system” if it loses. Another club member warned that the defeat of 1A will be hailed by the anti-tax Republicans and radical-Right talk-show hosts — who are already mobilizing their listeners against it — as a victory for their side and will virtually ensure that there will never be another opportunity to get legislative Republicans to vote for increased taxes.

Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council — who attended the meeting in a successful attempt to get the club to endorse the federal Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and make it easier for unions to organize in the private sector — said it would be the passage of 1A, not its failure, that “will put the state in peril. It’s morally reprehensible what’s been agreed to.” She and former club president Gloria Johnson both pointed to the state’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program, which supplies home-care workers to people with disabilities, as an example of a state service that will take a hit if 1A passes. Gonzalez said the defeat of 1A “will place pressure on the Republicans to give up their no-tax deal,” and criticized the measure for having been negotiated in secret by the so-called “Big Five” — the governor and the legislative leaders of both major parties — without input from other legislators.

The club voted overwhelmingly to oppose 1A. The motion to go on record against it passed with 25 in favor, 10 opposed and three abstentions. A motion to oppose 1B was then made and seconded by two of the people who had argued most passionately to oppose 1A — but they pulled back from their position when some of the 1A opponents, including Gonzalez, said the state’s public-school teachers would be worse off if 1A passes and 1B fails than if they both pass. “It’s very logical to oppose 1A and support 1B,” said former club president Craig Roberts. “If 1A passes, we want 1B to pass. If 1A fails, 1B is irrelevant.” After the motion to oppose 1B failed with no yes votes at all, a motion to support it passed with 34 in favor, two opposed and two abstentions.

Brian Polejes, a co-founder of the local Pride at Work chapter and a staff member with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), spoke out in favor of 1C. “This measure comes from SEIU’s research,” he said. “We represent the lottery workers. We have a very ineffective lottery in terms of generating revenue. It only raises $88 per Californian per year, compared to other states whose lotteries generate hundreds of dollars for every person in their states. The Massachusetts lottery generates over $500 for each person. There’s a lot of potential to improve the lottery.”

Opposition to the proposition came from club treasurer John Gordon, who called it “just a shell game” and expressed concern about the burden to the state of paying back the lottery in future years. A motion to endorse 1C got 20 votes, with nine opposed and nine abstentions, but failed for lack of the club’s 60 percent supermajority requirement for endorsements.

The club’s opposition to 1D was conditioned largely on former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin’s position — she co-signed the ballot argument against it — and also on another impassioned presentation from Marquez. “Proposition 1D does in fact raid Proposition 10, the tobacco tax increase that secured ‘First Five’ funding for pre-kindergarten education. This proposition matters to California but especially to Democrats because this protects ‘lost’ children, including children of color.” Marquez said 1D “opens the door to raid these [previous] propositions,” and added that its passage would take control of the funding away from the locally based “First Five commissions” set up by Prop. 10 and give it to the state. After a motion to endorse 1D passed with five in favor, 26 opposed and four abstentions, a motion to oppose it passed by voice vote.

Like Propositions 1B and 1D, 1E proposes to alter a previously passed initiative that was an example of so-called “ballot-box budgeting” in which voters approve spending for a specific program — sometimes also providing a dedicated revenue source for it, sometimes not. The previous proposition 1E would modify was Proposition 63, which set up a state fund for mental health programs. The change 1E would make is to defund some of these programs so the state can use Prop. 63 money to meet federal matching requirements for mental health services for children and young adults, thereby still using the earmarked money for mental health but freeing $230 million of the state’s general fund to help balance the overall budget.

Club member and peace activist Kelli King was skeptical — “I can’t help thinking this is a way to transfer mental health money to younger folks and reduce it for older folks” — but Marquez was willing to go along with 1E because its passage would simply return state mental health funding to the “base” that existed before 63 passed. Eventually the club voted to endorse 1E, with 23 in favor to six opposed and six abstentions.

Proposition 1F was the easiest one for the club to take a position on, with vice-president for development Bob Leyh saying of the legislators, “Why should they get a raise if they don’t do their jobs?” Despite the concern of club member Gerry Senda that restricting pay raises for legislators will discourage all but the rich from running for office, the club endorsed 1F with 28 votes in favor, four against and four abstentions.