Grappling with cuts when Democrats are in charge

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We are perilously close to being sucked into a political and economic hellhole by the leadership of the Republican Party and the tea party movement, even in states where Democrats control the legislature and the governor's office.

That is, unless the spirit of unity that unfolded in Wisconsin spreads to all four corners of the nation.

California is one of the states where Democrats lead the government, which has just made large cuts to social programs, putting a big hole in the safety net as the economic crisis and unemployment worsen. To be sure, these cuts are not as draconian as they would be under Republican leadership, but large nevertheless.

No less important, public employees' collective bargaining rights are not being threatened in Democratic-controlled states as they are in Republican-controlled ones.

California's predicament has its own particulars, but the dilemma facing states with Democrats in control has similar characteristics and challenges.

In California, in the recently-concluded battle over how to close the state budget deficit, Republican legislators voted as a block against the Democrats' plan because it didn't cut deeply enough and excluded public employee pensions from the chopping block.

Remarks by California Republican leader, Tulare, Calif., Assemblywoman Connie Conway on the day Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed the budget typified the Republican attitude. Republican lawmakers wanted to offer a "safety net" to people in need, Conway said, "We just don't want it turning into a hammock with cute little drinks with umbrellas."

Meanwhile, the governor's plan to ease the pain of cuts went up in smoke.

In order to restore a good chunk of budget cuts, the governor tried to place a measure on the ballot to extend a now-expired set of mostly regressive taxes and fees falling most heavily on working-class families. Even if passed, it would still have left a gaping hole in the budget.

Gov. Brown had effectively painted himself and the state into a corner once Republican legislators, holding fast to their no-tax increases pledge, refused even to let voters decide the issue.

Given the set of choices, Democratic legislators were between a rock and a hard place.

Unlike the federal government but like other states, California mandates balanced yearly budgets. Complicating matters, in California budgets can be passed with a simple majority, but raising revenue requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority, which Democrats lack.

"Because of Republican obstructionists," California Federation of Teachers President Josh Pechthalt said, "this budget continues to hurt public education and millions of Californians who depend on state services" while continuing to "protect the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians and the corporations at the expense of the vast majority of Californians."

California labor, which was pivotal to Brown's victory and the statewide Democratic sweep last November, is now moving to lead the public debate over budget deficits and taxes.

Labor is exploring various options to raise new tax revenues before arriving at a unified position later in the year that won't "put more burden on working folks," California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski told the Contra Costa Times.

One option being considered by a coalition of labor and other constituency groups involves placing a measure on the ballot in November 2012 to raise taxes on Californians with incomes in the top 1 percent. Initially, the CFT floated the idea of a 1 percent hike on the top 1 percent.

"We did polling, and it has huge support, so if we support an initiative for November, it would be more than 1 percent," Pechthalt explained. "One percent is too low. It's a misreading of where people are politically."

It is heartening to see labor and allies taking early initiative to reframe the debate over the tax and budget deficit dilemma to favor the people - in a unified way - as the nation and state prepare to enter the contentious 2012 election cycle. California labor's performance in 2010 was an outstanding example of unity in message and action, and the results proved it.

During the just-completed budget cycle, hardly a day went by that constituency groups did not take to Sacramento, the state's capital, to protest and advocate for their own particular program.

That too has been heartening. But, as the old adage says, "United we rise, divided we fall." A united fight against cuts to "safety-net" social programs and jobs is needed more than ever, as the anemic economic "recovery" falters.

So is a national, united, multi-organizational, grassroots-based campaign for massive job creation being promoted by the AFL-CIO.

Today's struggles will go a long way in setting the stage for an election victory against the Republicans next year, provided unity prevails - in the spirit of Wisconsin, last October's "One Nation, Working Together" rally in our nation's capital, and the formidable 2010 labor-led electoral campaign in California.

Photo: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addresses California labor in 2010. Randy Bayne // CC 2.0