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Weintraub: Measures appear headed for defeat

If the compromise budget package on the ballot Tuesday goes down to defeat, one reason will be that people like my buddy George are voting against it in droves.

George is not a close friend. In fact, I hardly know him. But we are pen pals. He sends me regular rants via e-mail, and I often respond in kind. We rarely agree, but we have fun exchanging views. He agreed to let me publish his comments as long as I did not identify him fully.

Last week, George sent me a missive with the subject line "No, no, no -- on all propositions." He wants to see the entire budget package defeated.

He concedes there might be some worthy ideas in it, but he doesn't care. He doesn't trust the Legislature or the governor, and he doesn't like the process that produced these measures. He thinks the state's leaders are passing the buck to voters, and he is willing to see the budget crisis worsen in order to force them to do a better job.

George is what I would call a populist liberal. A retired county manager, he supports government-run health care and free college educations for all. He wouldn't mind seeing taxes raised. But he is also a skeptic of big government, big business and just about every other big institution -- or the people who run them.

"I don't trust anybody," he told me in our first telephone conversation this week. "Money and power have taken over the world, and it has not been in the interests of the vast majority of people. I want to do something about it."

George is not alone in that view. In a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 76 percent of likely voters said they thought "government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" rather than "for the benefit of all the people." And like many of those people, George is also OK with big budget cuts, perhaps because he does not believe that the consequences will be as bad his Democratic Party is telling him.

But don't bother asking him to identify which services he would like to see cut. Admitting that he lacks the information to even begin that discussion, he won't go there.

Instead, George says he thinks a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in state spending is in order. An across-the-board cut would be fairer than targeted reductions managed by insiders to favor this interest group over that one.

I asked George what he would like to see happen if the ballot measures are defeated. "I want the Republicans and the Democrats to get together and figure out a way of reducing programs and increasing taxes in order to balance the budget and solve the problems in this state," he told me.

When I countered that this is exactly what they had done, and the ballot measures he opposes are needed to implement that plan, George said he still wanted the lawmakers to do the job themselves.

Besides, he doesn't really believe that they have solved the problem, or even begun to do so. Ratifying this package, he thinks, would only reward bad behavior on the part of the Legislature and the governor.

"I don't want to do anything," he said, "to give that process more credibility." If this group of legislators can't get the job done, George hopes the voters will rise up and replace them with people who can.

That and a majority-vote rule for passing the budget would begin to fix what ails the state, he said.

In the meantime, he is prepared to accept whatever pain might come from the fiscal chaos that could result if the state can't pay its bills and can't borrow to cover the shortfall.

"Maybe the answer is a complete breakdown in state government, and a complete rebuilding up from the ashes of our self-induced economic burn-down via bad government," he wrote in one of his e-mails to me.

In another, he used a different metaphor. "In remodeling a needy and wanting house, you must to some degree tear it down before you can build it back up into a better home. This state we live in is a needy home and it needs to be remodeled. The propositions only delay and obstruct us from doing something about this need." Polls suggest that widespread opposition from Republicans opposed to tax increases has put the ballot package on life support.

But the package might survive that opposition if Democrats and independents vote for it in large numbers.

If George's attitude toward the package and its authors is any indication, that simply is not going to happen.

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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