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The Hidden Budget Process

by: David Dayen

Wed Feb 04, 2009 at 07:50:27 AM PST


Everything that is corrosive and broken about California politics can be seen in this incredible article by Kevin Yamamura.  In it, he explains that negotiations on the budget are being held by the Assembly and Senate leadership in secret, so as not to upset the critical balance needed to pass it.

Five Californians are trying to solve the state's budget crisis, in part by keeping the other 38 million residents in the dark.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders have continued their negotiations behind closed doors for weeks, bypassing open legislative committees and offering the outside world few details as a precondition of their talks.

See, what happens is that the population of 38 million elects 120 representatives to go to Sacramento, and they vest all their power in the hands of four leaders, and they go off to run the state by themselves.  It's such a brilliant program, not subject to personal ambitions or petty jealousies. Not at all.

Among the people the Big Five are hiding from are their own fellow legislators, and lobbyists:

They fear special interests will mobilize on every proposal they hear about, ramp up pressure on lawmakers and prevent any possibility of reaching a deal that could secure enough votes.

"Whether it's education or labor or any of the other groups, when we get wind of something that has significant jeopardy for us, we fight against it," said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for hundreds of California school districts. "It's a (lobbying) system set up to defeat the latest idea that's been hatched, which makes it that much harder to get a solution."

When they do reach a deal, legislative leaders intend to hide it as long as they can until a floor vote, for fear that lobbyists may undermine the agreement by persuading key legislators to vote against it.

Wow, there's an honest lobbyist.

So let's get this straight: budget negotiations are happening in secret, because if they were even remotely public, special interests would scuttle the deal.  And when an agreement is reached, they're going to SNEAK IT ONTO THE FLOOR so no wayward lawmaker gets in his silly little head that he wants to read it.

The increased secrecy behind this year's "Big Five" leadership negotiations has made interest groups nervous and has alarmed open-government proponents.

"The thought that to be able to solve this you have to ram it down members' throats just to lock something up before a constituency finds it outrageous is evidence of how bad the process has gotten," said Terry Francke of Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group.

Yep.  Keep in mind that there has not been one Budget Committee hearing this year.  When a deal is reached, that committee will probably meet in the middle of the night and rubber-stamp the deal, moving to the floor as fast as possible to outflank the special interests who clearly run the state.

The Big Five process is absurd.  There are ways to decrease the influence of special interests, the biggest being full public financing of all elections.  The best practice is NOT to hide from them so that the legislative process is like a team of burglars trying to rob a jewelry store without being detected.  And the less people involved in any negotiation, the more possibility for eventual corruption through backroom dealing.

The entire brief for a Constitutional convention can now be "Read A-1 of the Sac Bee on February 4, 2009."

David Dayen :: The Hidden Budget Process
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Completely agreed (0.00 / 0)
It does not do Democrats any favors to be negotiating this behind closed doors - not just because of open government principles, but because the secrecy makes it nearly impossible for the public to know how and when to pressure their legislators to produce the right outcomes. The "big five" approach has made it extremely difficult to generate activist energy.

Which is probably the entire point.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave


we can't pressure lawmakers (0.00 / 0)
because they have almost no role in the outcome.  We do not have representative government in California, it's oligarchy.

[ Parent ]
Exactly (0.00 / 0)
The system is intended to allow for public engagement through budget hearings. Instead we have a Big 5 system set up to shut everyone out.  

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Hey in New York (0.00 / 0)
It's just the Big Three.

We have over 66% more people involved.


OC Progressive is Gus Ayer, former Fountain Valley Council member.  


haha! (0.00 / 0)
Well, it would actually be a lot better if we only had 3, assumedly b/c we didn't have the damn 2/3 rules.

I think?

[ Parent ]
We're asking too much... (0.00 / 0)
I'm not going to lie, I am no fan of these 'Big Five' meetings as well, but I think that we are all asking way too much. If it has been taking a small group of 5 this long to work out a budget deal, how long do you think it would take should the process open up to all the 120 representatives? Also, if these sessions were "open," lobbyists and other outside factors would increase the pressure on our reps to meet their demands. That is obviously fair and democratic, but everyone is asking too much. We want a budget passed NOW, but we also want to have our say in the process, which would further DELAY the process.

I am growing sick of it all...we all facilitated the onset of this mess. Our political leaders are reflective of us, the constituents.  


for the record (0.00 / 0)
I've been screaming about the Big 5 for several years.  It is indicative of the closed loops that restrict public processes and close off government to the people who own it.   The idea that I've just come up with this today and am asking for a delay in the process while everyone gets their say is absurd.  I have been for years and am continuing to call for a legal, open process that goes through the proper committee.  If you're fine with oligarchy, then the system is reflective of YOU, not me.

The role of lobbyists and outside factors, as you describe, can be curtailed if there was any political will for a real public financing system.  Do you honestly think the Big Five take NO views of outside interests into account?  A closed system HELPS special interests because they have fewer individuals to pressure.  Your argument makes no sense.


[ Parent ]
"Cone of Silence": Maybe they have no choice (0.00 / 0)
While I understand and appreciate the concerns raised about the Big 5 meeting in private to craft a budget agreement, I wish there would be more blame for those who have forced the negotiators underground.

The Republican Party wants to censure any Republican that dares support any tax increase. John and Ken want to "put their heads on a stick."  On the other side, labor has threatened to recall any legislator who supports any weakening of work rules.

How the hell can anything be accomplished in that poisoned atmosphere? Any legislator the least bit interested in compromise and cooperation is subject to censure and recall.

It is sad that these critical negotiations have to go on in secret. But the fault lies with interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum who put ideology above what's best for our state and who refuse to allow the legislators to work together to solve our problems.  



Sorry, that's part of the rationale for authoritarianism (0.00 / 0)
"Politics is messy, so we should just do what needs doing in secret."

And AGAIN, the Dems have compromised over and over and over again over the last several years.  It seems that the Republican leadership and their media apparatchiks have succeeded in pushing that into the memory hole -- every year is Year Zero for them, unless it's their grudge they want to push.

And you're saying that labor is right to want to protect the 8 hour day for which our grandparents fought and bled?  

Yeah, that's exactly parallel to the Republican leadership groveling before the altar of Grover Norquist in order to destroy government.


[ Parent ]
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