New Fiscal Year, Same Budget Problem

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In the end, Tuesday’s absolutely-positively-gotta-pass-something budget session was just another drill.

Senate Democrats brought out a trio of bipartisan Assembly bills that needed to get passed before the fiscal year ended at midnight to avoid poking another $3.6 billion hole in the budget only to see all three fail on yet another party-line vote.

The result? Not only did that $3.6 billion in anticipated 2009-10 school cuts disappear when the clock struck 12, but also under the state’s arcane education finance rules (thank you, Prop. 98), California will now be on the hook for another $2 billion in required payments to the schools for next year, boosting the deficit to about $26.3 billion.

But worst of all, even with the near certainty that the state now will have to pay its clients and vendors with promises instead of cash for who knows how long, there wasn’t even a hint that anyone not in the Assembly is willing to make the compromises that are going to be needed to solve the budget mess.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader, even promised Republicans they could get right back to fighting about the budget if they would just pass the cash flow bills.

If those bills were approved, “we can wake up tomorrow and fight over the budget without losing a bit of leverage,’’ he guaranteed.

But no dice. Senate Democrats say that won’t go along with any more cuts in state services while their GOP counterparts say nothing short of a $24.3 billion – and rising – solution is good enough to attract the two Republican votes needed to fast-track any budget solution.

As for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he dearly wants to see the budget battle end, not least because the clock is ticking on his time in office and he’d like to be able to talk about water, greening the state, improving the business climate or just about anything but the ever-worsening state of California’s finances.

While he’s saying publicly that only a complete solution will do, he’s also suggesting that if he can get some of the reforms he’s asked for – like more auditors to look for waste and fraud in the state-funded in-home support services program for the frail elderly, he might be willing to take the best deal he can get, declare victory on the budget and move on.

“If the Legislature doesn’t want to make the deep cuts needed to balance the budget,’’ Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger’s spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday, “the governor has proposed reforms that eliminate waste and still solve the entire deficit.’’

But as the clock moved ever-closer to the end of the fiscal year Tuesday, Democrats didn’t sound anxious to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with the governor.

A frustrated and exhausted-looking Steinberg, who said he had tried “every measure of persuasion and advocacy” to get the three money bills passed, pictured Schwarzenegger as sitting in his capitol smoking tent and looking forward to seeing billions more chopped out of the state’s health and human services budgets.

“What an irresponsible position to take!’’ the Sacramento legislator said. If Schwarzenegger is going to veto the bills, “let’s put it on the executive (branch). Don’t be party to this level of irresponsibility.’’

Then he called for another vote of the bills. Again, there was zero GOP support.

At 11:58, after hours of holding the three bills open for an unlikely vote switch, Steinberg bowed to the inevitable and let the trio of 25-14 tallies stand, still two GOP votes short of the two-thirds needed.

Steinberg sent the senators home a couple minutes into the new fiscal year, telling them he wanted them back to 10 a.m. this morning “to resume work on the budget.” That’s a great idea, but unless someone, Republican or Democrat, also comes back with some brand-new ideas, the state is looking at, in the words of Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.’’

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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