After a decade of failed attempts to balance the budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger's declaration of another special session on the subject -- in the final weeks of his governorship -- should occasion the question: Why are they bothering again?
The answer: The budget they passed just a few weeks ago is already badly out of balance. $6.1 billion out of balance.
Will they fix it? No.
California's budget system contains so many whips and chains -- spending mandates, two-thirds supermajorities -- that balancing the budget has become politically and logistically impossible.
But there are three reasons why this is worth doing, even if it ruins some vacations.
1. There are some small but significant savings to be had. There's no way the legislature will fix the whole $6.1 billion deficit in the current year. And it'd be a miracle if they managed to do anything about the projected $19 billion deficit in the budget year that starts next summer. But there are accounting changes, tax swaps and other things that might be attempted to make the books look a little better.
2. Schwarzenegger is giving himself a chance to test drive the new requirement that a budget bill may be passed by majority vote. The moment that Secretary of State Debra Bowen certifies the election results from last week's elections, Prop 25 -- which eliminates the two-thirds requirement for budget bills that had been in place in various forms since the 1930s -- will go into effect. It will be interesting to see if it makes it easier for the governor to get what he wants on the budget. He should be able to make a deal with the majority Democrats -- and not have to worry about getting votes of minority Republicans, as he has had to do under the two-thirds supermajority vote provision.
But the power may not be worth very much, because Republicans can still block revenue increases under other supermajority rules that remain in place. And it's the lack of revenues that has created the current budget fix.
3. This special session helps Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, no matter what results. (Brown was supportive of Schwarzenegger's call for a special session). If the legislature and governor find some budget savings, Brown's own budget-balancing job gets a little bit easier. And if the legislature and Schwarzenegger fail, the special session merely reduces expectations for Brown. If the next governor then makes even modest progress on the budget, he'll be able to declare victory.