Now the Budget Grumbling Can Begin

After more than two months of wrangling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders have signed off on a tentative deal that closes the state’s $26.3 billion budget deficit.

Now the real grumbling can begin.

Although details of the agreement, which was announced Monday evening, haven’t been released, enough broad outlines have leaked to show who won and who lost. The moaning will only get louder as the budget numbers solidify.

Actually, with the state’s current economic nosedive, there aren’t any real winners in the new deal, which revises a budget signed only months ago. Some groups, however, get hurt less than others.

Schools – and the education lobby – showed that they still pack plenty of political clout in Sacramento. Although there was no way they could avoid billions of dollars in cuts for next year, the final agreement ensures that they will be repaid at least $9.5 billion to make up for trims in recent years.

‘Schedule’ Gets Blame for New Budget Delay

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislative leaders were “unable to coordinate their schedules” for a meeting Sunday evening that could have ended the state’s budget crisis.

The possibility of a fix for a fiscal calamity that has chopped state services and left California paying its bills with IOUs may be important, but apparently not important enough to force some of the state’s leaders to deal with some inconvenience or even, God forbid, take an earlier plane flight to Sacramento.

The meeting was supposed to be the icing on the long-awaited cake, a chance for Republicans and Democrats to join the governor in finally signing off on a deal to close the state’s $26.3 billion budget gap.

Instead, on Sunday afternoon the governor abruptly postponed the slated “Big Five” session, with Schwarzenegger’s aides saying that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was in her Southern California district and would not be able to return to Sacramento until at least 8 p.m.

Same Old, Same Old in Budget Talks

“Until there’s a deal, there’s not a deal.”

      -Aaron McLear, spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

When McLear spoke those words to reporters Tuesday morning, he didn’t realize what a prophet he was.

Two days of untoward optimism fizzled Thursday as the governor admitted that the budget talks, while not broken, are “stalled.” Stalled as in it wasn’t even worth holding a Big Five meeting on Thursday. While it’s likely that everyone will get together today, the governor wasn’t making any promises.

As usual, the governor talked a good fight, promising yet again that a budget deal is just around the corner.

“There’s a will there, in this building, of both parties to get it done,’’ the governor said in a brief news conference Thursday.

Finally, a State Budget Deal May Be Near

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.

Whitman Ups the Ante in GOP Primary

When Meg Whitman dropped her check for $15 million into her campaign for governor Monday, the former eBay CEO instantly raised the ante for the GOP governor’s primary.

Whitman, who’s in her first try for public office, said she was making the three-for-one match of the first $5 million in outside contributions she’s received to show her commitment to her run for governor.

But while there are plenty of candidates committed to their campaigns, not many have a spare $15 million or so lying around to put a price tag on that commitment.

That $15 million is on top of the $4 million she already has shoveled in to stoke the “Meg for Governor” campaign boiler. Last March, Whitman suggested to Fortune magazine that she could end up spending $50 million of her own money.

As Deadline Fades, Budget Talks Slow

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.

The Fiorina Senate Rollout Begins

Carly Fiorina, sidelined for months by breast cancer surgery last March, is apparently back on the campaign trail, quietly gathering support for a run at veteran Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year.

While the former Hewlett-Packard CEO isn’t talking, an aide told Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times this week that Fiorina is talking to GOP officials around the state, “seeking their advice, their counsel, their prospective and their political support.’’

Fiorina should also be asking for their prayers, because she’s going to need plenty of divine assistance if she decides to take on Boxer.

Get ready for a wave of stories about Fiorina’s political future, as her aides dole out occasional tidbits of information in an effort to keep a wave of interest building for the first-time candidate.

A Poll is Not an Election

Here’s a reminder to those groups touting a new poll showing that, in the words of the release, “California voters overwhelmingly support a $1.50 tobacco tax increase.”

A poll is not an election. And what voters say in a poll doesn’t always reflect what happens on election day.

Joel Fox, the lead hound on this blog, wrote Wednesday that the push for an increase in the tobacco levy is a none-too-subtle attempt to ease voter resistance to tax hikes in general, clearing the way for future boosts in a wide range of tariffs.

Maybe so, maybe no. It’s no secret that Democrats in the Legislature and public employee unions have been leading the charge for closing the state’s $26.3 billion budget hole with a mixture of cuts and tax hikes. But if they think the shopworn numbers in the new poll are likely to change any minds in Sacramento, they haven’t been paying enough attention to past California politics.

Schwarzenegger Offers a Budget Path

When Assembly Speaker Karen Bass stomped out of a meeting with the governor Sunday night and boycotted a Big 5 budget session Monday, she complained that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing a laundry list of reform measures that have nothing to do with the budget.

But if Bass and other Democrats listen closely, they may hear the governor offering them a path to a budget agreement, even though it’s a road they won’t much like.

Schwarzenegger has been talking about the need to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in state programs like welfare and in-home supportive services. He even brought in a posse of district attorney types from around the state Monday morning to share horror stories about the problems with IHSS, which provides in-home care for the frail elderly and disabled.

No surprise there. “Fraud, waste and abuse” is almost a mantra for Republicans and no few Democrats looking to show voters that they’re going to be tough with the government’s money. It’s a cry that typically fades away as soon as the polls close on election day.

Talk Still Cheap in Sacramento

While legislative leaders and the governor all say that things now are moving along swimmingly in the state budget negotiations, talk continues to be about the only cheap thing available in Sacramento these days.

Going into the holiday weekend, Democrats and Republicans were promising to meet non-stop with the governor to get a quick deal to eliminate the state’s $26.3 billion budget deficit and ease California’s financial troubles.

“In my mind we’re making significant progress,’’ Democrat state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg told reporters after promising that tax increases are now off the table.

Things are moving so quickly, said GOP Assembly leader Sam Blakeslee, that it’s even money that “we’ll find a solution that is acceptable to all parties within a week.’’