Archive for November, 2007

State budget revealed

November 15, 2007

Analysis by Russell Kilday-Hicks printed in the November 2007 issue of “University Employee” CSUEU newsletter

The here and now
It’s a truism that California has a thriving movie business. And like the movie “Groundhog Day,” the California legislature is stuck in a yearly remake called “Groundhog Budget Day.” And, just like some overused Hollywood blockbuster, we just saw sequel number 17 (six in the last seven years, all filmed over the last 30 years). But, you can relax now. California finally has a state budget. This was not the latest they’ve ever been at getting the job done. While the constitutional deadline was mid-June with the real deadline the start of the new fiscal year at the beginning of the summer, July 1, in the end, they were only 52 days late. The latest the state has ever been was in 2002 when it was more than two months overdue.

This tired script repeats, and may go on repeating, year after year, because the major elements: the competing powers, the budget structure, and the reluctance of key entities in the state to take responsibility for paying their fair share, all resist change. What’s at stake doesn’t change, however. But if the state is going to be serious about investing in its future, which would include our particular charge of supporting the higher education of the children of the working class in California, change—of a particular sort—is just what we need.

BTW—You may have heard that we will still most likely get most of our negotiated raises. While our raises may not be as large as we had hoped, due to some contingency language in the budget tied to the whims of the legislature to provide more funding than previously planned to the CSU, the language just drives us back to the bargaining table.

Not to say the legislature didn’t explore taking away what was minimally promised. That trial balloon was floated and something quite unprecedented happened. The legislature got a joint letter from the chancellor’s office and the unions representing the majority of the staff in the largest higher education system in the world (nearly 40,000 of us) saying that this would be a bad idea. Of course, we don’t need convincing but sometimes you have to make some noise to stop a dog from barking up the wrong tree.

Budget and bargaining past
That letter and the new climate of cooperation reflect a power shift and our very real gains in our involvement and influence in the budget process. Here’s the story: In years past when we first went to the bargaining table (usually in February or March, before the “May revise” when the governor adjusts his numbers based on actual state revenue rather than January’s projected numbers) the CSU would steadfastly refuse to talk money. They would talk anything else, from the weather to the dotting of “i’s” and the crossing of “t’s” but their stance remained: “There was no point in talking money until the state budget passed,” they would say. “Only then will we know how much we are dealing with.” This whole process was bass ackwards, so to speak. Our needs mattered little to the CSU. That’s not real bargaining and was probably a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the bargaining law laid out in the Higher Education Employee Relations Act (HEERA).

Then, after the legislature passed a budget, with funding for the CSU at least partially based on the CSU’s own stated needs in their budget request to the legislature, the CSU would skip happily over to the bargaining table saying: “Here’s the pie CSUEU; how do you want to slice it?” Unfortunately, that pie was often pretty lean to begin with, which is why we saw pitiful raises of nothing or a measly 1.5 percent that hardly kept pace with inflation these years past. Upon closer examination there was a fatal flaw in this game. CSUEU President Pat Gantt understood member frustration but felt people were too quick to blame a seemingly powerless union. “Many people forget that we can’t get more dollars on the bargaining table until the Legislature allocates it to the CSU in the budget,” he said. The problem: the CSU was not asking for enough money to begin with. We, your union, were determined to change that.

We entered the process like never before with rallies on almost all the campuses (some held more than one), with letters and e-mails (Chancellor Reed was heard to complain about the number of e-mails, once asking a gathering of CSU labor leaders “What good does it do for me to get 500 e-mails a day?”), with visits to lawmakers, and, along with our sister union, the CFA, by putting pressure on the media to cover what was really going on. “Something happened; we did something they have never seen before,” President Gantt said. This is the key to our future.

The budget this time
The almost-yearly budget stalemate is usually characterized as bipartisan bickering. This time around the “partisan gridlock” of two competing political parties came with a new twist—a Republican governor siding with the Democratic majority. After Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly came to agreement (only a month late at that point) it seemed like we were close to a resolution because only two Senate Republicans were needed to sign on to get the two-thirds majority needed (the two-thirds requirement is from a law passed in 1879, and California is one of only three states in the country with this rule). In all other areas of state governance we have majority rule (a.k.a. democracy) except when it comes to (what some would say is the crux of power) finances. In 1978 a majority of the voters of California added tax increases to the short list of a two-thirds legislative voting requirement. Passing a tax cut is not held to the same standard, however. And that outlines one of the issues needing to be addressed to fix this perpetual mess.

While trying to hold the “high ground” on why the Senate Republicans needed to delay agreement (to be “fiscally responsible” in a time when state spending exceeds income, so they said) an examination of the proposed last-minute cuts they demanded tells a different story. Some had nothing to do with the budget.

In the end, the state was held hostage for an extra month by a handful of Republican senators acting without the approval of even the state leader of their party. This had the affect of exposing the game like never before. The first Senate Republican to turn, Abel Maldonado, stated that his colleagues had essentially moved the goal posts. He said they had already gotten everything they asked for at the beginning of the process. Senate majority leader Don Perata demanded the Republicans “tell us what you want.” One of the items on their over $800 million list of additionally proposed cuts they responded with included the yearly attack on the “UC Labor Union Institute.” Of course their real name is the Miguel Contreras Labor Program. Nowhere on the institute’s website is there a mention of unions. The Republicans call this non-profit research group a “special interest” because it’s one of only a few groups in the state doing research on the working population in California and occasionally that research shows the advantages of unions for working people (and unionized businesses too, by the way). There are countless groups doing “pro-business” (anti-union) research that the Republicans do not call “special” and are perfectly happy to keep funded.

The Republican holdout may have convinced the governor to use his “line-item” veto to cut an additional $700 million from the budget after it “passed” but he may have done that anyway. He promised not to touch the CSU and he kept that promise. In the final analysis, like the answer to the question of why a dog licks his private parts (because he can), nothing more was gained for the Republicans but the crass display of power for power’s sake. It must be tough to be a minority party for years on end, but there is a chance their manipulation and abuse of their budget responsibility, as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez characterized their position, will backfire on them.

Long-term fix
The problems are not that simple but many of the solutions are. The Republican “hammer” on every “nail” deemed a “special interest” will not rebuild our state. How does one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country on the planet have a yearly problem with revenue outstripping income? The problem comes from having to rely on sales; when sales go down, fees go up (like student fees) because fees don’t take a two-thirds vote. The Republican mantra of “no new taxes” is smoke and mirrors. They are just pushing up “taxes” by another name. What they mean to say is the little people should pay and the rich shall get richer. And they are, believe me.

For now, what is to be done?
Here’s the real deal: political pressure. It’s the only game in town. Like we saw when the legislature floated the idea of not fully funding the “compact” made between the governor and the chancellor, the pressure turned them back. We must get better at this, not only with our coalitions like the SEIU State Council but in the local relationships we create and the noise each and every one of us can make. We need to convince both the legislature, one lawmaker at a time, and the taxpaying citizens in the state that not only can we afford an investment in the CSU, we have a bleak future if we don’t do just that.

The only long-range fix: change the two-thirds requirement (we tried and failed in 2004); return to majority rule and fix this tired script. I can’t bear to watch another Sacramento sequel.

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