Anger, Not Compromise, Now Rules Budget Fight

The Legislature is slated to shut down for a month-long recess on July 17, but given the slim chance for a quick agreement on the budget, legislators shouldn’t buy any non-refundable tickets.

As the state controller began Tuesday to print out the first batch of IOUs that will replace the cash money many state vendors, clients and taxpayers normally would receive, the governor and legislators reprised the old kindergarten game of “I didn’t do it, he did it.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the game with a morning news conference in the Capitol, where he complained that the Legislature has spent the past four weeks with “an endless amount of hearings and debates, finger pointing and assigning blame,” instead of fixing the budget.

The governor then proceeded to finger point and assign blame, saying that legislators – meaning Democratic legislators — won’t support reforms to root out fraud in huge government programs like In-Home Support Services, are committed to protecting special interests and are refusing to make the same sacrifices they’re asking of other California residents.

New Fiscal Year, Same Budget Problem

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.

It’s a Game of Chicken on the Budget

Who’s going to blink first?

That’s what California’s budget battle has come down to as the Legislature and the governor try to reach some agreement that will allow the state to pay its bills next week with cash and not just promises.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is about the only person in Sacramento still looking for the immediate perfect compromise that will close the state’s $24.3 billion budget gap and hopefully end the fiscal squabbling until January, when his 2010-11 budget is due.

Everyone else is pretty much resigned to putting together a stopgap plan that will keep the state from having to issue IOUs next week, clearing the way for more weeks of talk and budget stalemate.

On Thursday, the Assembly managed to vote out a bipartisan package of bills that would provide the state with about $4.5 billion in needed cash, enough to stave off the IOUs for most of the summer.

Term Limits and Waxman’s Tobacco Bill

If Congress had term limits, President Obama wouldn’t have been in the Rose Garden Monday, signing a bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration its long-sought control over tobacco products.

The bill had been stalled in Congress since the early 1990s and only made it to the president’s desk after more than 15 years of effort by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles.

For those doing the math, that’s longer than California’s six-year limit for Assembly members, eight-year limit for state senators and the 14-year limit for a combined legislative career.

When California voters approved term limits back in 1990, the stated purpose was to open up government to a wider range of elected officials, citizen legislators who would serve their term in office and then, Cincinnatus-like, put aside politics to return to the farm or insurance office or car dealership or whatever.

Convention Backers Don’t Trust Voters

Backers of a new state Constitutional Convention have apparently decided that California’s voters can’t be trusted to decide what’s best for the state.

After nearly a year of pitching a convention as a chance for grassroots Californians to make the hard choices politicians won’t, the Bay Area Council has decided those average citizens shouldn’t have a chance to discuss whether the state needs more taxes.

“There are a whole bunch of reforms we can get to without touching tax increases,’’ John Grubb, a spokesman for the council, told the Capitol Weekly Monday.

In a convention, hundreds of people from across the state would get together to discuss ways to reform state government, hopefully coming up with solutions that would bring California’s government into the 21st century.

First, Do No Harm

As a measure to change the rules for ballot initiatives wends its way through the Legislature, its supporters should remember that in politics, as in medicine, the most important rule is always, “First, do no harm.”

Although California’s $24.3 billion budget problem is still a long way from being solved, people across the state are trying to figure out who’s to blame for the financial mess and what can be done to stop it from happening again.

Everyone has a preferred group of villains and most of them are old favorites.

Republicans, for example, like to target those big-spending liberals and greedy unions for pushing the state budget into the red. Democrats would rather talk about those conservative budget slashers and their penchant for giving tax breaks to their buddies in the business community.

Little Compromise by Budget Committee

At the end of Tuesday’s final session of the Budget Conference Committee, Democratic Assemblywoman Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa thanked everyone but the cooks in the Capitol cafeteria for the fine job they’d done over the nearly four weeks of hearings on ways to close the $24.3 billion hole in next year’s state budget.

The six Democrats and four Republicans on the committee worked well together, she said, even through a “lively and comprehensive debate” on budget issues.

And what did all this bonhomie accomplish? Well, by the time the committee adjourned just after 7 p.m. last night, we had learned that one, the Legislature’s Republicans aren’t going to vote for taxes to close the budget gap and two, that Democrats are going to propose them anyway.

It’s June 15, the State Has a Budget and So What?

If 12 months ago you had told California legislators that by today they’d have a state budget passed and signed by the governor, it would have been deafening cheers and high fives all around.

After all, while the state Constitution calls for a balanced budget to be approved by the Legislature and sent to the governor by June 15, it hasn’t happened since 1986. Until this year.

But the celebrations are on hold as legislators and the governor wrangle over that 2009-10 budget in a financial fracas that threatens to be every bit as ugly as the battles that have filled Sacramento summers in years past.

For the tealeaf readers in the capital, the omens aren’t good for a quick solution to the $24.3 billion shortfall already forecast for the coming year.

Finally, a Little Good News on the State Budget

For the glass-half-full crowd, there is a bit of good budget news coming out of Sacramento.

Buried in the red meat for the party faithful about raiding the planned budget reserve to save welfare, college scholarships and children’s health insurance, Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, also said his caucus is willing to go along with $13 billion of the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When you add that to the governor’s $8 billion in smoke and mirror funding (increased income tax withholding, a boost in estimated tax payments, various funding shifts and the like) that the Democrats never had any real problem with, you get a total of $21 billion in cuts.

Sure, that’s short of the estimated $24.3 billion hole in the 2009-10 budget, but it would go a long way toward solving the fiscal problem that’s threatening California’s financial future.

When Meeting Reporters is the Good Part of the Day …

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.