Finally, a State Budget Deal May Be Near

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

State budget talks turned serious Tuesday as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders met late into the night in an effort to reach a final agreement on how to close the state’s $26.3 billion budget gap.

Karen Bass, who no one has ever accused of being Pollyanna when it comes to seeing the bright side of the long-running budget talks, startled reporters Tuesday afternoon by saying that an agreement finally was within sight.

“We think today’s the day,’’ she told reporters before stepping into the Big 5 meeting in the governor’s office. “We should finish this today; there’s no reason for it to go on any longer.’’

The fact that legislators are slated to begin their month-long summer recess on Friday also could be a factor in the long-awaited rush to agreement, but at this point, whatever works.

Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate leader, echoed his Democratic colleague, suggesting only that it could take until today for the final agreement.

“There’s no reason that today, or (Wednesday) at the latest, we can’t get this done,’’ he said.

Even GOP Senate leader Dennis Hollingsworth, the recognized Grinch of the budget talks, admitted that he was feeling optimistic.

“We just have to make sure there are no new taxes in this,’’ he added, not surprisingly.

Bass turned out to be overly optimistic. The Big 5 meeting adjourned at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday without coming to that final agreement. They plan to meet again at 1:30 this afternoon.

The lone shadow still threatening this unexpected bipartisan rash of good feeling is a serious one, however: there is still no agreement on how big a financial hit California schools will take when the final numbers are crunched.

While Bass said she wants to avoid suspending the Prop. 98 school funding guarantees, there’s no way to get the cash needed to balance the budget without looking to the schools.

That’s the reason for the dueling TV ads from the California Teachers Association, who have called for new taxes to help close the budget gap (and save school funding), and the governor, who released his own TV spot Monday saying, yet again, that that wasn’t going to happen.

With teachers, state employee unions and other Democrat-friendly groups in Sacramento calling for new taxes, the governor felt it was important to go directly to the people to reiterate that he would not support them, said Aaron McLear, the governor’s spokesman.

While Steinberg and Bass have already promised to keep tax increases out of the final budget deal, Schwarzenegger’s ad also served as a reminder of where he – and the GOP legislators needed to pass the budget revisions – still stand. The governor also did four radio interviews Monday, emphasizing the need for a quick budget solution without new taxes.

But it was Schwarzenegger, usually the sunniest of optimists, who had his aides tone down the celebratory rhetoric.

While the governor and the legislators “continue to make progress in making the cuts and reforms necessary to balance the budget,’’ McLear said in a statement shortly after midnight, they “have significant work left to do.’’

Or, as McLear warned reporters Tuesday morning, “Until there’s a deal, there’s not a deal.”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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