Tired of losing a succession of budget battles to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and disillusioned with the tedium of months-long committee hearings, Assembly Democrats this year have turned the budget process topsy-turvy and added a dash of showmanship.
The strategy is necessary, they contend, to disabuse the public of the false notion of a governor holding at bay his rivals in the Legislature to preserve the state treasury from ruinous overspending.
"Have you ever been to any of those budget hearings? They are the worst, the worst," Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said, expressing the view held by many Assembly Democrats. "It's a waste of time to go through all this nonsense when you are really not having much of an impact on the budget."
So, Democrats in the Assembly, prodded in large part by younger legislators who express even more frustration than Brown, are out to change the script for the battle of the budget.
First, they now are winding up hearings on the main part of the process--consideration of Deukmejian's proposed $39-billion budget--doing in weeks what used to take months.
Next, they plan to leapfrog the Ways and Means Committee and its powerful chairman, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose), and have the budget ready for debate and a vote by the full Assembly in early April, about two months ahead of the traditional schedule. The plan also is for the Assembly to take up separate budget "trailer bills" in an unusual "committee of the whole," calling witnesses who presumably would testify under the public glare of television news cameras.
The result of these changes, the Democrats believe, will be to seize a share of budget-making initiative, control the terms of the debate and bring new attention to issues on which they believe the governor is vulnerable.
Democrats are convinced that Deukmejian's bare-bones budget proposals for education, health, welfare and other programs won't sell with the public, so they want to turn the spotlight on them.
While that might not seem too revolutionary, it is a dramatic change in one of the most enduring and time-honored rituals in the Capitol.
Until now, the Assembly, like the Senate, spent months reviewing, amending and debating the governor's budget. The slow, deliberative process has long been considered a mainstay in state government's system of checks and balances, serving as insurance that education, health, welfare, transportation and other programs will be adequately financed and as a guard against unnecessary or wasteful spending.
Because many lawmakers still believe that the lengthy budget process is valuable, the new budget strategy has won its share of criticism.
As for Vasconcellos, who will have to surrender some of his power, he said he agrees with other Democrats that debating fiscal issues directly on the Assembly floor will focus public attention on key budget items. A big question mark was whether Vasconcellos, a widely known lawmaker whose legislation to create a special commission on self-esteem was recently satirized in the "Doonesbury" comic strip, would go along with the budget debate changes. So far he has been supportive, though not with great enthusiasm, according to colleagues.
Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose), chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said his house will review the budget the same way it does every year.
'The Only Way'
"I regard (the Assembly Democrats' plan) as a means of getting media attention and I have no intention of doing the same thing over here," Alquist said. He added that "the slow, deliberative process is the only way to put the budget together."
Assembly Republicans are opposed, too, but they must follow the majority party's dictates. Democrats outnumber Republicans 44 to 36. Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville), vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats want to turn the budget into "a political circus."
"I think a thorough review of the budget is important every year, to see which programs are working, which ones are meeting their objectives, and which ones aren't. We aren't doing that this year," said Baker, who charged that Democrats were "rubber-stamping" a lot of programs in their rush to get a budget to the floor.
Under the old system, Vasconcellos was able to wield enormous influence over the budget, having the freedom to set agendas, block programs he didn't agree with and pursue his own programs.
Explaining Vasconcellos' role in preparation of the budget, one Democratic legislator who asked not to be identified, said: "The way it worked in the past is that we'd hold hearings, and I'd go in and sit down with Vasco and I'd say, 'This is the way I see it,' and he'd say, 'This is the way I see it,' and we'd work something out."
All or Nothing
Another Democrat said that once such a deal was struck other members of the committee did not have a chance to vote on individual elements of the budget plan. "We never got a chance to vote on individual things; all we got was a vote up or down on the entire budget package," he complained.
Not so this year. In addition to moving the budget rapidly through the Ways and Means Committee, Democrats want separate floor debates on individual elements of the governor's proposed spending program, such as elimination of certain education programs and the end of state support for the California job safety agency, Cal/OSHA.
And the budget likely will leave the Ways and Means Committee without the recommendation of either Vasconcellos or his committee, the first time that has happened in the seven years the lawmaker has run the committee.
Vasconcellos, though, said during a recent interview that he is as frustrated as other Democrats with the political mileage that Deukmejian has been able to get out of the budget.
Democrats say that until this year the budget process has had a high degree of political inevitability about it: It always ends with Deukmejian using his veto power to blue-pencil most of the spending programs they add to the budget.
In all, the governor has vetoed more than $2 billion in Democrat-backed spending proposals over the last four years, a fact that Deukmejian cited in speech after speech during his successful reelection campaign last year.
Said one Democratic lawmaker: "We give the governor a responsible budget and he cuts the living (obscenity) out of it and says the Democrats are the big spenders."
This time around, the Democrats will try to present the governor's budget on the Assembly floor in close to the same form that Deukmejian introduced it in January, hoping it has enough political warts to embarrass the governor and other Republicans. In effect, they are setting up a straw man. Democrats uniformly oppose the governor's budget proposal and say they will vote against it unless vastly amended.
Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz of Sepulveda said: "What we really want to do is force the public debate. We want to take that debate out of late-night committee hearings and small rooms and put it onto the floor."
Some Assembly Democrats believe that the Senate's Alquist made a big mistake recently when he amended the governor's budget by adding $1.3 billion in spending on education, health, welfare and worker safety programs. There was no debate, no discussion--the matter was simply done.
Alquist justified the budget amendments on the grounds that the additional spending is required by existing state law, which in fact it is. State law requires education, welfare, health and a wide variety of other programs to be financed at certain levels.
Seen as Aiding Governor
Still, some Assembly Democrats said the action played right into the governor's hands, giving him the chance, once again, to point out that Democrats are adding massive spending to the budget.
One angry Democrat said: "We ought to just give him his budget back and say, 'Here, this budget is not any good. You make it work.' It's ludicrous to me that we keep getting beat up and going back."
Katz is the senior member of the group that pushed for the change, winning election to the Assembly in 1980. Others are Assemblymen Steve Peace of Chula Vista, elected in 1982, Gary A. Condit of Ceres (1982), Gerald R. Eaves of Rialto (1984) and Charles M. Calderon of Alhambra (1982). They are supported by more senior members of the Democratic Caucus, like the Speaker and Assemblyman Mike Roos of Los Angeles, the Assembly Speaker pro tem.
"There's no institutional reason why we should take all that time to pass the budget," Peace said.