While there are plenty of huge numbers flying around in the California’s latest budget debate, the most important figure is a lot smaller:
That’s how many days legislators have to stop making their partisan political points, take a deep whiff of reality and put together a plan to close that $16 billion or so hole in next year’s budget.
By June 15, legislators have to pass an in-balance budget or face the unhappy prospect of joining the 2 million of their constituents who already aren’t collecting a regular paycheck. Like hanging, the prospect of an empty wallet should concentrate their minds wonderfully.
Of course, realism has its limits when it comes to state finance. In order to balance the 2012-13 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown is channeling his inner Blanche DuBois and depending on the kindness of strangers – the California voters he needs to pass his temporary November tax hikes that will bring in an extra $8.5 billion to save the day for the state.
So how’s that reality-based, good government, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit of cooperation going? You be the judge.
Here’s San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s take on the governor’s May revise plan to yet again close that pesky budget gap.
“I strongly support the proposed November tax measures and I am committed to other common sense revenue ideas like closing the corporate loopholes in Proposition 13, taxing and legalizing marijuana and enacting an oil severance tax.”
Thanks, Tom, and the governor’s office will get back to you on that.
Then there’s GOP state Sen. Ted Gaines of Rocklin, who has a different plan for dealing with the shortfall.
“I will continue working tirelessly with the Governor and my colleagues on a budget that does not rely on tax increases, includes job-creating incentives, calls for regulatory reform and will not further the burden on hard-working California families.”
That’s great, Ted, and the governor will be chatting with you as soon as he’s off the phone with Ammiano.
With the two parties apparently happy to continue talking past each other, Brown already has decided to concentrate on both appeasing and cajoling the Democrats, who thanks to 2010’s Prop. 25 can pass the budget on a simple majority vote, without ever talking to a Republican.
Trimming back public employee salaries, cutting CalWORKS welfare, slashing court funding and making all the other teeth-gnashing budget reductions needed to bring the budget into balance is going to force Democrats far out of their comfort zones, Brown admitted in the news conference following his budget announcement Monday.
“What government does is good and a lot of Democratic legislators see the good and they are really troubled by cutting back on something basic … Is it going to be a hard sell? Yes, it is going to be.”
Plenty of Democrats already are balking. Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate leader, had refused to bring cuts Brown requested in January up for an early vote, arguing it would be better to wait and see if the state’s finances got better. They didn’t.
And while Steinberg said he and other Senate Democrats “are not looking for a big public fight over the next month,” they will be looking to “find some alternatives to the most egregious cuts.”
Then there’s Assembly Speaker John Perez, whose AB 1500 would raise hundreds of millions of dollars from businesses by changing the state’s rules for corporate taxes.
That change might make sense if the cash-strapped state was using the money to pay its bills. But since there’s not much glory – or newspaper ink — in that, Perez instead is sponsoring AB 1501, which would use that new-found cash to pay for middle-class scholarships to California’s public colleges.
So you have the Democrats anxious to avoid any budget cuts that might just possibly force someone to sacrifice, while the Republicans will only back budget cuts that slam the low-income Californians who rely on the state for their basic needs.
Even Brown, who called himself “a buoyant optimist” (to much laughter from the Capitol press corps), recognizes that convincing legislators to put aside their personal politics, ignore the threats of the special interest lobbies and work out the best possible deal for California over the next 29 days is going to be neither fun nor easy.
“Certainly the Legislature and the Republicans, if they really want to stand up, can offer other alternatives,” he said. “Somebody can figure out a better tree to cut, be my guest.”
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.