California budget deal collapse: Did state GOP blow a huge opportunity?

Gov. Jerry Brown needed four GOP votes to advance his California budget plan. The fact that talks failed without Republicans winning any concessions may come back to bite them.

California state Senate minority leader Bob Dutton (l.) talks with GOP lawmakers during the debate over Gov. Jerry Brown's California budget plan at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., March 17.

When California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared state budget talks dead Wednesday, several political analysts suggested that there might be another casualty: the state Republican Party.

The reason? It missed a huge opportunity to forward key policies that have been shoved aside during the past 10 years with Democrats in control. Among them: rolling back government employee pensions, diminishing regulations on business, and limiting the growth of government – all issues on which Governor Brown signaled a willingness to compromise.

The price was just four Republican votes that Brown needed to place a tax-extension plan before voters in a June special election. Brown's need for those votes gave Republicans unusual leverage that they may have squandered, analysts say.

“For this deal to have fallen through over something as small as just offering a referendum to let voters decide strikes me as big mistake,” says Craig Wheeland a political scientist at the St. Augustine Center for the Liberal Arts at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “For a party in a minority situation in both state chambers to not take the opportunity to get something big that they valued in the past is really surprising.”

Last fall, as Republicans swept statehouses across the nation, California’s party was moving the other direction. It lost the two statewide offices it held and a legislative seat it had held for two decades. The highest state office Republicans now hold in California is on the Board of Equalization.

Why California Republicans struggle

Part of the reason is demographics. California's relatively large shares of Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and African-Americans tend to skew Democratic. That contributes to the Democrats' advantage in voter registration: 44 percent of voters register as Democrats, compared with 31 percent as Republicans, and 25 percent as third-party or decline-to-state.

For Hispanic voters in particular, the state GOP's decade-plus hard line on immigration has been a turnoff. In the midterm elections, Hispanic voters favored Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer over her Republcian opponent by 38 percentage points, according to a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California September poll. Hispanic voters favored Brown by 19 percentage points over Republican Meg Whitman.

But another reason for the GOP's poor performances in California is its hard-line attitude, says Randy Ertll, an activist for Hispanic causes.

“Republicans, again, have adopted an arrogant attitude towards negotiating with Democrats. They rather take a slash-and-burn strategy instead of negotiating to obtain middle of the road concessions,” says Mr. Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena. “They’d rather kill the budget process and not allow Governor Brown any claims of victory.”

Republicans say it was Brown who pulled the plug on dialogue.

“We didn’t say no to Jerry Brown, he said no to us,” says California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro. “For him to say that our list was ever-changing is untrue. We put all those choices in front of him since the beginning, and he has turned us down. So what more can we do?”

Other Republicans say it is a misrepresentation to paint California Republicans as obstructionists.

“The media are making the Republicans look like the bad guys by the way they are reporting the budget talks breakdown,” says Gary Aminoff, president of the San Fernando Valley Republican Club.

“The Republicans' budget cuts do not result in keeping kids from being educated or throwing Grandma out of the nursing home," he adds. "That is all propaganda from the Democratic Party media machine.”

The difficulties of moderation

In many ways, the actions of California Republicans are hardly unique in today's political climate.

“Moderation is a difficult place to be in American politics right now, with all this focus by both parties on the purity of their agenda and a set of principles,” says Professor Wheeland.

He says that California reflects a national pattern of drawing legislative districts in ways that allow incumbents safe seats that don’t require compromising with opponents once they get into office.

“There’s a lot of pressure on California by the national party to not give in because the state is large and very important on the issue of pension reform,” says Kevin Klowden, director of the Milken Institute California Center, a research group.

But hewing to a hard line might have cost the state party.

“It could be a long time before Republican lawmakers have another opportunity to move their policies forward," says Barbara O'Connor, emeritus director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

"The end result of all this," she said, "is they will become even more irrelevant."

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