New political dynamics roil Calif. budget talks
June 27, 2011
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – In years past, the June 30 constitutional deadline for a budget to be signed has been merely a footnote in the political gamesmanship of state budget negotiations, with lawmakers facing no serious consequences for missing the deadline by weeks or even months.
This year, the date brings something new – a sense of urgency.
Voters’ approval of Proposition 25 last fall means lawmakers will go without pay and daily expense money for each day they fail to pass a balanced budget beyond their June 15 deadline to send a spending plan to the governor.
The same initiative also gave the majority party – Democrats – the ability to pass a budget without Republican votes. That should make the process easier in theory, but Democrats still don’t have the ability to raise taxes on their own. That requires a two-thirds vote, and thus some GOP support.
Still, Democrats are feeling pressure to fulfill the intention of the ballot proposition, with or without Republican lawmakers.
“The majority party takes very seriously our new authority to pass an on-time budget,” Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in an interview. “And then you also have a new governor, who is equally committed, given the majority party’s new authority, to make sure he abides by his constitutional requirement to sign a budget by July 1.
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“I remain confident we will have a budget signed by next Friday.”
Gov. Jerry Brown was meeting with Democratic lawmakers over the weekend, and negotiations are expected to intensify as the start to the new fiscal year approaches. But striking a deal that will satisfy the independently minded governor has proved difficult.
Earlier this month, Brown vetoed a spending plan approved by his fellow Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly, saying it did not meet his test for a gimmick-free plan and that it relied too heavily on borrowing. The state controller, Democrat John Chiang, also said the budget plan was not sufficiently balanced enough to comply with Proposition 25. That decision halted lawmakers’ paychecks.
Brown has been trying for six months to strike a deal with a handful of Republican lawmakers over his proposal to call a special election so voters could decide whether to extend a series of expiring tax increases. That includes additions to the vehicle and sales taxes, as well as an increase to the personal income tax rate that expired in January. Lawmakers approved all three temporary increases in 2009.
The increases to the sales and vehicle taxes that Democrats want to extend also are set to expire this week, adding to the sense of urgency in the Capitol. Any attempt to revive them afterward would be criticized as a tax hike rather than a renewal, making such a move politically challenging.
Brown, who promised during his campaign last year that he would not raises taxes without a vote of the people, wants the special election held in September. Under his proposal, the higher sales and vehicle taxes would be extended for five years, while the personal income tax increase would be renewed for four years.
He needs two GOP votes in each house to get the measure on the ballot and has said he remains hopeful that he can strike a deal with enough Republican lawmakers to place the question before voters. The handful of Republicans who have been negotiating with him are pushing for pension reforms and a state spending cap to be on the same ballot.
In case he fails to get GOP support, Democrats in the state Legislature are pursuing a budget plan they can pass on a majority vote, without Republicans. Democratic lawmakers and Brown already have cut the state’s original deficit by $11.4 billion, primarily with spending cuts.
Brown met in person over the weekend with the Democratic leaders of both houses, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, of Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, of Los Angeles. He was also “in conversation” with Republicans, Brown spokesman Gil Duran said.
Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Perez, said the Democrats made progress on Saturday “and are very optimistic about reaching a compromise.” She said a majority-vote budget was a viable option.
Some Republicans are skeptical.
“I think the Democrats are going to try to roll out another gimmick, another budget that’s loaded like a shell game, and Mr. Chiang is going to look at it and say that this doesn’t meet the criteria,” Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, said in a telephone interview.
Chiang predicted last week that his decision on the Democratic plan would lead to a balanced budget more quickly, along with the stick that voters approved with Proposition 25.
“This is the first time it’s applied, and that’s fundamentally changed things,” Chiang said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Part of the reason the budget didn’t balance is that they were engaged in some of the past practices that worked in earlier years but that do not work today under the new reality.”
Leno noted that the controller’s review said the previous budget plan was $1.8 billion out of balance in an $89 billion general fund spending plan – not such a huge hurdle despite the deep cuts to social services and other programs that Democrats already have agreed to – begrudgingly.
Others were more pessimistic about the chances for a resolution this week, despite the new dynamics.
“The Legislature works in mysterious ways that have been developed through the years,” said Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Whittier. “All of that has been turned on its head.”
Calderon expressed frustration over the governor’s previous veto of a budget he said Brown’s staff helped craft and that he thought the governor had agreed to.
“The ball’s in the governor’s court,” he said. “So it’ll move as fast or slow as he can make it move.”