When Meeting Reporters is the Good Part of the Day …

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

When Darrell Steinberg meets this morning with reporters to talk about the state budget, it might be the first time ever that a legislative leader was relieved to take questions from the press.

As tough as the questions may get, it’s still got to be a relief from the pasting the state Senate’s Democratic leader is taking from his erstwhile allies.

With the state facing a $24.3 billion hole in next year’s budget, Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass face the no-fun-at-all job of convincing Democrats that the only way to keep the state out of the fiscal dumper is by slashing the very programs the party has fought for for years.

So far, it hasn’t gone well.

Both legislative leaders took a whack last month when voters overwhelmingly rejected five ballot measures that were part of budget deal they helped broker last February. The vote not only eliminated $6 billion in new revenue from the 2009-10 budget, but also dumped the proposed spending cap that was just about the only political fig leaf for the handful of Republicans who backed the budget compromise.

With any prospect of a spending cap vanished, those GOP votes for any revenue increases – also known as tax hikes – are going to be hard to recover.

But as Steinberg and Bass try and work out a new budget deal, they’re taking fire from the left.

Take, for example, the headline on a piece Monday on the progressive Calitics web site: “Examining Democrats’ Failed Budget Leadership.”

By being willing to accept deep cuts in programs, Steinberg and other party leaders are proving “that Democrats cannot be counted on to defend the people who voted for them,’’ said Robert Cruickshank, the story’s author.

Then there’s David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, who admits that tough decisions have to be made. Those decisions, however, shouldn’t hit the state’s schools.

“Rather than giving tax breaks to big businesses, lawmakers need to reinvest in our future: our children,” he said.

Public employee unions, typically the bluest of blue staters, put around $2 million into the campaign against the Democrat-backed ballot measures and are fighting any suggestion that the state needs to cut programs – and workers.

AFSCME California, which represents thousands of state employees, has put together a package of new taxes and revenue boosts that would bring the state as much as $44 billion a year and union leaders are asking Democratic legislators why they won’t support it.

Republicans will be held to blame if legislators don’t put together a budget based on “progressive taxation,’’ wrote Willie Pelote, the union’s top political guy.

“That’s assuming the Democrats … develop the requisite backbone to stand firm this time around,’’ he added.

With friends like these …

The attacks show just how tough it’s going to be for Democrats to agree on the cuts needed to close the massive budget gap, especially if Republicans, as has been their wont, sit with their fingers in their ears and repeat their mantra: “No new taxes. No new taxes.”

For Democrats, and the state as a whole, the budget dilemma now is a matter of selecting the least bad alternatives. There’s not a choice that going to win Steinberg or anyone else any friends, which is why talking with reporters this morning may be the easiest part of his day.

John Wildermuth is a longtime reporter on California politics.

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