Man in the middle

Steinberg makes his special-election pitch to progressive voters

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (left) shakes hands with former Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill. Now voters are ready to shoot down the deal they made.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (left) shakes hands with former Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill. Now voters are ready to shoot down the deal they made.

Photo courtesy of darrell steinberg

If you want to understand just how lousy the decisions facing Darrell Steinberg were earlier this year, consider Proposition 1E—which he wants you to vote for on May 19. As part of a budget deal the Senate president pro tem helped to broker, he agreed to put on the ballot a measure that would strip a half billion dollars out of programs for the mentally ill to backfill a (tiny) portion of the state’s $42 billion budget hole.

Steinberg would tell you those programs, made law by Proposition 63 in November 2004, are one of the greatest achievements of his political career.

As he told SN&R, “I hated the decisions I was confronted with, but I will defend them.”

Likewise, Proposition 1A, with its combination of spending limits and a large rainy-day fund, has been described as “the ransom Steinberg paid” to Republicans in order to get a few GOP votes for some modest tax increases.

All that compromising may have been for nothing, as voters are poised to vote down all six ballot measures being pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steinberg and the other legislative leaders.

On the right, anti-tax sentiment is sapping support. On the left, Prop. 1A’s spending limits are seen as draconian, and critics say California should change the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget—a system that makes it nearly impossible to raise taxes in tough budget times.

We talked to Steinberg specifically about his message to progressive Democrats in Sacramento—the folks who have voted for Steinberg again and again, but who are tempted to join Republicans in voting down Prop. 1A and the other propositions.

You want to take a half billion dollars out of mental-health programs to help make up the shortfall. But really, what’s more important than those programs?

As you know, I put my heart and soul into Prop. 63, and it is doing incredible things for people. But here’s real life, and what I had to face. Prop. 63 will have full funding after the two-year period, and the money comes from reserves. Here were the other choices: The Republicans proposed eliminating 98,000 kids from cash assistance. The Republicans proposed cutting hundreds of thousands of people off of Medi-Cal and Healthy Families. They proposed severely limiting assistance to immigrants, they proposed $400 million in cuts to in-home supportive services. So we would have had to find $450 million worth of cuts from core health and human services that didn’t have reserves. We rejected those cuts.

I hate the decisions that I was confronted with, but I will defend them. If anybody has the credibility to say with regard to Prop. 1E, “There really wasn’t another choice that was palatable,” I think I may be that person. That decision speaks to the magnitude of the crisis and the situation that we are facing in California. And I will defend that to anybody.

You’re a progressive Democrat. But the progressives are split on Prop. 1A. How do you convince them to vote for these measures?

I pride myself on pushing the envelope and taking on the most important progressive causes. That’s what my career has been about, and that will never change for me.

I say that because I hope it provides some context and some credibility as to why I feel so strongly that these initiatives need to pass.

California, unlike the federal government, does not print money. We do not have a mint, we have no authority nor ability to deficit spend. There are many reasons and many issues around why California’s budget process is broken. But in this instance, our revenue in California is projected to drop over $30 billion between September 2008 and June 2010.

It’s historical; no one has ever seen this before. We have a responsibility to balance the budget. Our failure to do that would result in economic catastrophe for the very people who we as progressive Democrats are responsible for standing up for.

Reasonable people can disagree about various elements of these propositions. And I can certainly take any and all of the criticism about the package and pieces of it. But there is one argument that I cannot abide by, and that is the argument you hear from some on the left and some on the right that it would have been better to just let this go off the cliff, and that would have taught one side or the other that, you know, “We’re right and you’re wrong.” That would have been devastating for the people on the progressive side that we stand for.

The biggest criticism you hear from Democrats is that Prop. 1A imposes artificial spending caps, even in good years.

We had choices. The choices were to cut and to raise revenue. We broke the years-long impasse with the Republicans on taxes. We raised $32 billion in taxes over five years. But we also had to make difficult cuts. And in order to get their support for the taxes, we had to agree to spending reform.

The Republican definition of a spending cap is an artificial restraint on the growth of government. You can look at [Assemblyman] Mike Villines’ [Assembly Constitutional Amendment] 19. We didn’t do that. Instead, we established a rainy-day fund, which ensures that every penny that goes into that reserve fund comes out to pay for services or to pay down debt.

It’s why the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in large part opposes [Prop.] 1A. We’ve got some of our friends on the left who don’t like it as a matter of principal, but I will tell you this: There is $25 billion worth of public investment dependent on the passage of [Propositions] 1A and 1B. That’s a $9.3 billion restoration for public education [in Prop. 1B] and an additional $16 billion in taxes [in Prop. 1A].

There’s a good chance these measures will be voted down. What’s plan B?

We’re not giving up. We are working on plan B as we speak. We are going to continue to fight for the most vulnerable, we’re going to continue to fight for public education, we’re going to continue to fight for health and human services. But the truth is that the numbers are the numbers. If the revenue continues on the downturn, and we wake up May 20 with $15 [billion] or $16 [billion] or $18 billion deficit, and the message is “Well, voters don’t want taxes,” you know then we’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions.

Your friend, Phil Angelides, says that voters should reject Prop. 1A so we can get on with “real reform,” that we need to change the two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget.

Of course we do, of course we do. But it is going to be much more difficult to go about reforming the system if we are endlessly mired in crisis. It’s not just the reality. Look, if I thought that the spending restraint [in Prop. 1A] was really the Republican version of a spending cap, it would be a completely different story. But we whittled this down.

You won’t call it a spending cap?

It’s a rainy-day reserve. Isn’t it rather ironic that [the Service Employees International Union] and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association are on the same page? That [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association are on the same page?

Yes, it is. It’s also ironic that you and Phil Angelides aren’t on the same page.

It’s true; I just plain disagree with Phil. He’s my friend, and I was one of his most ardent supporters. But I think he’s wrong. He’s wrong because the logic that “if we let these go down then we will show the people that the system needs to be fixed, in our way,” that doesn’t compute to me. The people are very clear that they are mad at us all. They hold Democrats and Republicans accountable. I’m absolutely committed to changing the two-thirds [vote requirement]. You better believe it. I think we have a much better chance if we can come through this crisis and give people some hope that we can in fact solve our problems.