THE BLOG
06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Challenges and Lessons from a Year as Speaker

This week I mark the one-year anniversary of being sworn in as Speaker of the California State Assembly. And what a year it has been. Clearly, the overwhelming challenge in the past year has been to keep California going in the face of the brutal national and international economic recession.

The Bush White House looking the other way while Wall Street gambled with the future helped put the national economy into a tailspin. That compounded other factors. We have a revenue system in California designed for the 1930s that makes us especially vulnerable to downturns. We have voter approved initiatives that carve out increasingly large sections of the budget. We have a corrections system that has seen a fivefold increase in funding since 1994. And we have a governor who, as soon as he took office, blew a six billion hole in the budget by slashing the state's Vehicle License Fee.

If you take out voter initiatives and court decisions California's spending is actually under inflation and population growth. But it is true there have been times the governor and legislature have appropriated one-time money for ongoing programs and that has also been a factor in where we are today.

In the crisis budget we adopted in February to try and fill what had been an $18 billion hole, we had to make deep cuts in programs Democrats cared about. That's on top of about $12 billion in cuts we'd already made over the past few years. Because we had picked up four new Democratic Assembly-members in the November election -- the biggest Democratic pickup in the Assembly since Watergate -- we only had to convince three Republicans that new taxes had to be included along with those cuts. The final product was by no means a budget to celebrate. It was a true compromise in that no one was happy. But it had to be done.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and I were able to block some of the most draconian cuts, particularly to education and services for the poor. And we stopped wholesale rollback of labor and environmental protections that had nothing to do with the budget. But those victories may not hold. Today Governor Schwarzenegger will unveil the annual May Revision of the budget. This year instead of one revision he is doing two -- one outlining his budget proposals if the propositions on California's May 19 ballot pass and one outlining his budget proposals if the propositions fail.

One of the big lessons I've seen over the past year has been how much the budget process is harmed because of the state's 2/3 unusual vote requirement. California is one of only three states in the nation that requires a 2/3 vote to raise revenues and pass a budget. Those handcuffs have to be removed. When the people of California elect a majority of legislators from a political party they are saying they want that party to lead. The majority should be able to act and then deal with the consequences. If the people don't like it, then the majority won't be the majority anymore. That's accountability. That's responsibility.

Another, and even more disturbing lesson from the budget is the power that talk radio and rightwing blogs have developed in some sections of the capitol. Last week it was announced Mike Villines, the Assembly Republican leader who supported revenues and helped make sure California didn't go over a cliff in February, is being replaced. He faced unrelenting attacks from bloggers and radio hosts who said they wanted his head on a spike. Ratings driven entertainment shouldn't be shaping public policy in California. It may be a game to them -- and good money for their stations -- it may even be fun for some of their listeners -- but when legislators or elected officials take it seriously and jump accordingly -- then the consequences are too high for the people of California.

Even with the recession continuing to take our main attention, there are still some areas where I hope we can make good progress in Sacramento this year: continuing to maximize federal stimulus dollars...promoting green jobs, businesses and buildings -- including the State Capitol... increasing renewable energy sources....improving the outcomes for foster kids and helping high school students succeed in college, career and community service. We'll have to be creative and try to do more with less, but I am pleased with the opportunities for potential advancement in these areas.

As part of marking my official anniversary on Wednesday I was joined by several members of the Assembly in helping out at Loaves and Fishes, a Sacramento shelter that provides housing and food for the homeless. Then, incoming Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee and I presented a check to the California Employment Development Department representing Assembly budget cuts that will now help unemployed Californians access their benefits. These events were definitely another reminder that California is indeed facing challenging times -- but also that we have faced tough times before and come through them together.