Niello says he was surprised when he heard that the Democrats finally were going to agree to the spending limit, because they had been fighting the concept for years.
"I didn't think they would go there," he said. But they did go there, after they saw it was their only route to even a temporary tax hike.
But there was a hitch. The spending limit, being a constitutional amendment, would have to go on the ballot. Republicans feared a double-cross. They worried that the Democrats, after agreeing to the budget deal, would try to kill the spending limit when it went to the voters. So Republicans agreed to vote for only half the taxes up front, and linked the second two years of tax hikes to passage of the spending limit by the voters on May 19.
Without that linkage, Niello says, "all the public employee unions would have opposed the spending cap" in the special election.
Instead, the unions are split, and the most vociferous opposition is coming from the right. And in a strange twist, the anti-tax groups are taking aim at the link between the spending limit and the extension of the taxes, the very linkage that Republicans used as leverage to force the Democrats into supporting a spending limit.
If the opposition succeeds and Proposition 1A is defeated, Californians will still get higher taxes for at least two years, but no spending reform. If Republican lawmakers had offered that deal to the Democrats in February, the majority party would have accepted it in a nanosecond.
Fiscal conservatives think they will be able to win voter approval, eventually, for a much tougher spending limit than the one contained in Proposition 1A. But for now their strategy has a puzzling theme to it: The anti-tax groups are simultaneously criticizing Niello and the other Republicans for voting for tax hikes while those same groups are working for an outcome that would kill the part of the package that Republicans demanded in exchange for their votes on those taxes.