As Deadline Fades, Budget Talks Slow

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Controller John Chiang’s grim report on the state’s year-end cash figures Friday added another red flag to the sea of scarlet surrounding the state budget, but it was the “good” news that may be the most worrisome.

While the state originally was projected to run out of the cash needed to pay its debts and its workers later this month, the use of IOUs “will preserve enough cash to make those protected payments through September,’’ the report stated.

Urgency? What urgency? With the latest absolutely, positively, no-kidding-this-time deadline now somewhere out there in the distance, that leaves plenty of time for the posturing, finger-pointing, name-calling, sulking and other political game-playing that make up the annual budget dance.

At least that seems to be the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are looking at it. While everyone talks piously about the need for fast action, budget discussions ground to a halt last week after Assembly Speaker Karen Bass stomped out of a Monday night meeting with the governor and refused to meet with Schwarzenegger again for days.

The Big Five, including Bass, did meet this weekend and came out saying all the right things. But there was no hint that any sort of bipartisan agreement was near on the tough and guaranteed unpopular steps needed to close the state’s budget gap, now at $26.3 billion and growing.

“I would characterize the talks as good, progressing in the right direction,’’ Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor, said Saturday.

Of course, “progressing in the right direction” may only mean that everyone hung around until the end of the meeting and promised to come back the next day.

Likewise, when Bass said that Saturday’s session was “the most productive in the last several weeks,’’ she wasn’t setting the bar real high.

And if you like political-speak at its finest, try this comment from Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo:

“I would say we’re getting very close to a general framework, but there are still outlying questions,’’ he said, neglecting to mention that it’s “outlying questions” that have stalled the negotiations for weeks.

But this isn’t like the usual budget year, when delay is an annoyance, but not a disaster. When last year’s budget didn’t get passed until Sept. 16, Californians were still getting paid in real money, not promises of cash sometime in the future. But every day of delay in finding a budget solution now costs the state money and its people pain.

Last week provided a few reminders of the continuing price of delay.

  • On Friday, many of California’s largest banks stopped accepting the state’s IOUs.

     
  • Most state offices closed for “furlough Friday,” one of three unpaid days off each month for state workers. The governor wants workers to accept an additional 5 percent pay cut, with the suggestion that a fourth furlough day may be added if the Legislature doesn’t approve the trim.

     
  • One of the state’s biggest public worker unions, saying enough is enough, is threatening to take a strike vote this week.

     
  • A $4 billion payment due to state schools last week was delayed until July 30.

     
  • UC System President Mark Yudof called for university workers to take between 11 and 26 furlough days a year, even as the state university system announced it can’t afford to accept new students for the spring semester.

It’s anything but business as usual for California residents right now. The same should be true for the legislators they elected.


John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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