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Golf, Cocaine and Budget Talk

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Grover Norquist, the affable head of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, doesn't want Republicans to negotiate with Democrats to solve Washington's deficit problems or to cut a deal to solve California's budget shortfall.

"I think golf and cocaine would (be) more constructive ways to spend one's free time than negotiating with Democrats on spending restraint," Norquist recently told The Washington Post's Ezra Klein.

While many voters have never heard of Norquist, he is a major player in Washington. Most Republicans have signed his organization's no-new-taxes pledge. Ditto most GOP California lawmakers. Norquist considers a vote to put a measure that includes a $14 billion tax-increase extension on the ballot to be a violation of his no-new-taxes pledge. Thus from Washington, Norquist has a big foot on California budget talks.

Norquist is not the reason why there has been no budget deal in Sacramento. (As of my deadline, the Legislature had voted on spending cuts, but without a budget deal, the vote was arguably symbolic.) A group of five hardy GOP state senators had been negotiating with Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats. But unless the Dems give them something in return -- say, a spending cap and pension reform -- they have little reason to back the governor's proposal.

Brown spokesman Gil Duran responded to that sentiment by noting: "What do they have to have in order to let the people vote?"

The answer, as GOP strategist Rob Stutzman put it, is "leverage." In politics, when you have it, you should use it. Here is an opportunity to win pension reform. There may not be another opportunity for years.

As far as Norquist is concerned, the anti-tax side already has won. Brown said he'll cut spending, he argued.

"Why would we say, 'No, no, no, don't cut spending'"?

But as Brown rightly argues, his proposal would include spending cuts, but also would allow voters to decide if they want to balance the budget with spending cuts alone.

Voters well may reject the Brown budget package. In 2009, voters rejected a prequel tax-extension measure by a 2-1 vote. And if Californians do reject the Brown proposal to cut spending and extend taxes, everyone will know that deeper public school and safety cuts were the people's choice -- not the result of a Republican purposeful decision to be irrelevant.

If, on the other hand, Californians approve Brown's measure, at least Californians will have shown themselves to be willing to pay for the government they have elected. I'd call that progress.

In the run up to a June election, meanwhile, Sacto Dems would have to give up blaming Republicans for all the state's woes. It's time for them to start working on an even bigger state problem -- California's obscenely high unemployment rate of 12.4 percent.

Back to the budget. For too long, Californians have been sending mixed messages.

"That's the argument that tolerates date rape," Norquist responded.

Clever. Too bad the Norquistas didn't go after both Democrats and Republicans who busted the budget with spending increases and gimmicks that helped dig California's $26 billion budget hole. No, they only get tough when a Republican is willing to deal.


See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

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