Late, late, late

The state has passed the two-month mark without a budget, and Californians are well beyond being upset about it. They’re angry … and embarrassed. Something needs to be done.

To his credit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has finally expressed a willingness to back away from his long-standing no-tax pledge. His latest compromise budget includes a temporary, three-year, 1-cent hike in the sales tax that will raise some $4 billion this year but eventually lower the sales-tax rate by a quarter-point.

“I look at that as being realistic and not getting stuck in ideology but doing what is right for the state at this time,” said Schwarzenegger.

But his fellow Republicans in the Legislature can’t stand to compromise. After all, as the minority party, they have to put up with the Democrats kicking sand in their faces all year long. The only time they get to stand up and sock the bully is when the budget, with its two-thirds-approval requirement, comes along.

We’ve heard the Republican legislators’ line: The state has a spending problem, not a tax problem. Spending is up 33 percent in the past five years, they argue.

But whose fault is that? You can blame it on inflation (17 percent) and population growth (7 percent), but the rest ($7.4 billion, or 9 percent) went to prisons ($4.3 billion, to house an additional 11,000 inmates) and local governments, to make up for money lost when vehicle-license fees were slashed ($3.1 billion). Nobody was more eager to lock up criminals and cut car taxes than the Republicans.

Now, faced with a $15.2 billion deficit, they adamantly reject any kind of tax increase, even if it’s sweetened by the promise of a permanent tax reduction four years down the road. Instead they demand that Democrats cut education spending and social programs for the poor.

OK, Republicans, we get it. You’ve kept the state at impasse for nearly 60 days. You’re tough enough. Now do the really strong thing and compromise. Pass the budget already, so your fellow Californians can stop worrying about whether their schools, health clinics and universities will stay open.

And to the Democratic legislators: It’s time for you to compromise, too. The schools won’t get as large an increase as they were expecting. Some programs will have to be reduced in size or cut altogether. There’s really no choice.

In the longer term, we need to make some obvious choices that go to solving the structural problems that cause this budget deadlock each year. We must look again at how the state’s been hobbled by Proposition 13 and we must end the supermajority requirement that allows for a minority of legislators to block a reasonable budget. Otherwise we’ll just continue as we have been, solving our problems by borrowing from future generations.

But that’s for the tomorrow. For today, let’s just please pass a budget.