By Scott Robertson
When he was governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to the politics of budgeting as “kabuki theatre.” Kabuki, for those not familiar with the genre, is all about presentation. Elaborate costumes, exaggerated motions and the appearance of deep conflict are all staples of kabuki.
It was Schwarzenegger’s claim that everyone involved in California’s budget talks had to go through a long and involved process of stating and defending their own positions before they would allow productive talks to begin.
Last Thursday evening, the members of the Johnson City Commission held the first reading of the fiscal year 2016 city budget. There will be three readings in all, with the second coming tomorrow night and the third a week from Thursday.
I wish I could report that the commissioners began with very succinct thanks to the city staff who spent so much time preparing the budget proposal and bringing the commissioners up to speed on its contents over the previous few weeks of workshops, then turned to a point by point examination of the budget, cutting and adding where they felt it was appropriate, until they reached a final agreement on which a majority of them could agree.
This was, in fact, very much what Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin had in mind for the process.
Instead, the commissioners began with very succinct thanks to the city staff, then allowed the meeting to degenerate into a slog through a quagmire of hurt feelings and indecision.
Like the California process, the first act came with philosophical statements that added nothing to the process, but allowed commissioners to tell voters how the commissioners felt about the whole thing. Those who favor the 37-cent property tax increase felt the city should provide services essential to moving the community forward. Those who opposed it felt smaller government governs best.
That would have been fine had the second act been organized. It wasn’t.
Vice Mayor Clayton Stout thought he had a great idea by moving that the city add five cents to the property tax to pay for street and road repair. That’s the one issue that every commissioner has been hearing about from voters. Stout figured he would start the process off with a unanimous positive vote. He was wrong. Commissioners Tomita and Banyas weren’t ready to vote for any tax hike. Commissioner Brock wouldn’t vote for it unless it could be guaranteed the funds wouldn’t come at the expense of something else being cut from the budget later.
Had the commission really wanted to make progress on the budget, this would have been the opportunity. They could have agreed to let Stout’s desire for a five cent increase remain on the table through the rest of the negotiations, and go through the rest of the budget point by point without making motions.
They could have gone through each department, coming to an understanding of what at least three of them could agree to for that department’s budget, then, at the end, tally up the total, make a single motion for that amount, and vote for that as the budget.
The word kabuki is rendered from three ideograms meaning song, dance and skill. We’ve seen the song and dance. It’s time to see the skill.