Republicans in Sacramento are about to face a key decision on taxes.
Will the beleaguered California Republican Party, fresh off some modest legislative pick-ups in the 2014 elections, head into the next campaign season unified, and positioned to hold those gains and perhaps make a few more? Or will the GOP limp into next year's campaign season reeling from massive internal warfare and conflict
The answer to this depends on whether Republicans can stand together to keep the one implicit promise of climbing out of super-minority status: namely, stopping tax increases in the legislature dead in their tracks.
Let me set the table....
Governor Jerry Brown and Democrats in the California State Legislature recently passed a record-sized $167.6 billion budget for the state's fiscal year, which started at the beginning of July. Total state government spending (including funding originating from D.C.) is estimated by the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters at a staggering $350 billion!
Yet, with all of these vast sums of money, liberal politicians continue their practice of "shorting" needed funding for transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance (for roads, highways, bridges, etc.), preferring instead to expand spending on social welfare programs-including, for the first time devoting millions of dollars to health care benefits for foreign nationals in the United States illegally.
Concurrent with the recent signing of the budget, Governor Brown announced that he was calling a special session of the legislature-calling for new taxes for transportation spending.
If you are a liberal with an agenda of increasing the size and scope of state government, you need new tax revenues. So you withhold funding for things that everyone would agree are vital state functions, and then clamor for more money. The flaw in this plan is that it is so obvious, and so duplicitous, that no one would fall for it. Or would they?
Enter a group of special interests that is apparently unconcerned about the epic tax burden that exists on Californians, or about the precedent that is set by allowing this kind of "blackmail budgeting" to result in higher taxes.
While Republicans in the Legislature have made it fairly clear that they do not support the governor's call for higher taxes, last week a coalition made up of unions and big business held a press conference calling for a $6 billion increase in gas and car taxes (annually) dedicated to transportation infrastructure. Look no further than who stands to profit financially from all of this increased state spending to understand some of the politics here.
There are two paths that emerge here. The first is that Republicans in the state Senate and state Assembly hold the line against pressure from various interest groups to increase taxes, and continue to point towards the funds that are available from current tax revenues to address the state's transportation infrastructure needs. Democrats will then own, and have to defend to the voters, their decision not to fund "brick and mortar" issues. Not an enviable place to be.
The second path is a more ugly one for California Republicans: a bipartisan vote to pass higher taxes in the legislature (or, almost nearly as bad, a vote to place tax increases on the ballot).
Look back to 2009, when six Republicans, including both the Senate and Assembly GOP leaders, went up on what was at the time the largest tax increase in California history, at the urging of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both legislative leaders lost their jobs - Senate Republican Leader David Cogdill got the axe almost instantly, and Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines ultimately succumbed to a growing statewide grassroots effort against him, announcing his resignation as leader a matter of weeks after the tax hike vote. Five of the six saw their careers in elective office end (one was elected to an obscure, local non-partisan office).
In one case, a recall effort was launched, raising six figures primarily from small donations from upset grassroots Republicans, that resulted ultimately in Assemblyman Anthony Adams choosing not to run for re-election (he was replaced by Tim Donnelly). The delegates to the California Republican Party Convention even passed a resolution prohibiting any party funds from being spent on the six.
The break in Republican unity on the core issue of taxes was extremely divisive, and hurt the GOP. Republicans went on to lose more legislative seats in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
Some would argue that it will take all of the political smarts of California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte, working with various coalition partners, to make sure that all of our at-risk legislative incumbents - such as Catherine Baker, David Hadley, Young Kim, Tom Lackey, Eric Linder, and Bill Steinorth - return next year, let alone hold key open seats in the Senate and Assembly and be poised for pick-up opportunities.
The choice, for Republicans, is whether state Democrats will go into 2016 on defense for not funding infrastructure needs; or whether Democrats score the double win-billions in new taxes and a fractured GOP, ready to be slaughtered in 2016.