Times were good during the late '90s, when the combination of the tech bubble and the Clinton economy created a consistent stretch of prosperity in the California economy. But a series of tax cuts, combined with the ailing economy of the Bush years and the bursting of that tech bubble. led to massive structural deficits. But unlike in other states, where the majority party in the state legislature can actually govern the state, California was different: it took a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the legislature to even pass a budget, much less raise taxes. This allowed an ever-increasing extreme band of Republicans, who controlled more than a third of at least one house during this time despite their deepening unpopularity, to hold the state hostage seemingly every year until they got even more cuts to the social safety net. These Republicans would even use their hostage-taking power to extract corporate tax cuts for big businesses, further deepening our fiscal nightmare.
Eventually, the progressive California electorate got tired of this. Even as a tea party wave swept the nation in 2010, California's Democrats increased their legislative majorities and swept all statewide offices. We passed a ballot measure ending the supermajority requirement to pass a budget. And in 2012, after over 30 years of anti-tax orthodoxy dating back to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, Californians voted to tax themselves to stop the crushing damage done to our schools by decades of low-tax neglect. Even better, redistricting reform has allowed Democrats to win even more seats, finally claiming a supermajority in the legislature and rendering the Republican Party structurally irrelevant in every meaningful way.
And now, not coincidentally, the Sacramento Bee reports that California is finally starting to write new headlines, as Gov. Jerry Brown has declared California's budget deficits a thing of the past. Even further, the Bee reports that the University of California will likely not have to increase tuition at our world-class public universities because of Gov. Brown's new budget. These tuition increases had been a mainstay during California's painful past few years, as anti-tax Republicans somehow did not see tuition hikes as a tax increase on our students.
There's a short but important lesson to be learned here. Out here in the Golden State, we certainly have a lot of work to do to repair the damage. But we could only get started on the right track once the Republican Party in California was removed from every single lever of power and Democrats were allowed to actually govern the state by making the wealthy pay their fair share and eliminating the structural roadblocks that allowed a heartless minority to dictate the state's fiscal terms. Given the sometimes precise analogies to what is happening on a federal level now, it's a point that bears repeating: California's path back to prosperity has proven that cutting corporate taxes, gutting the social safety net and defunding our schools is simply not the way to run an economy. We had austerity imposed upon us for years by a minority party with no qualms about holding the state hostage to its whim, and no matter how much we did it, it still did not work.
Democrats across the nation can take California's example to put the lie to Republican claims of fiscal prudence, of course. But despite our nascent turnaround, California Democrats still stand at a crossroads. Gov. Brown is insistent that he will not rebuild the social safety net that was cut during the recession:
Brown said he is unwilling to restore funding for social service programs that have been cut during the recession. "That kind of yo-yo political economy is not good," he said. "I want to advance the progressive agenda, but consistent with the amount of money the people made available."As digby explains, however, this approach is fraught with its own challenges:
We've seen that movie before. It came out only a little over a decade ago. And what's the plot? The Democrats preside over the creation of a recovery and surplus and burnish their "fiscally responsible" bonafides by cutting vital programs and emphasizing "saving" their surplus rather than restoring those services. The Republicans then ride into power on the promise that they would hand out hundred dollar bills like candy in the form of tax cuts. ("It's yer Muneeeeee!") And the next thing you know we're back in deficit and it's time to start cutting even more. The Republicans usually let the Democrats do this dirty work because well ... cuts are unpopular. Tax cuts aren't.As California figures out how to rebuild, these two schools of thought will certainly butt heads, as well they should. But what everyone should be able to agree on is that the conversation about how to fix both the state and the country at large should not involve the very same people who caused these crises: namely, the unapologetic extremists who have no issue with taking everyone hostage to advance their private agenda.