Comparing legislators to haggling "rug merchants," Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday threatened to hang tough all summer if necessary to win passage of a budget that not only erases the state's $12.6-billion deficit but repeals "autopilot" spending escalators for programs such as welfare.
This represents a shift in strategy for Wilson, who until now has been trying gently to persuade the Legislature to pass a budget ahead of its constitutional deadline of June 15, which it rarely meets. In fact, Wilson only a few weeks ago was urging lawmakers to send him a budget by May 15, so needed tax increases could take effect early.
The governor, in an interview with The Times and in later comments to Los Angeles television reporters, clearly was hoping that the specter of another summertime budget debacle in Sacramento would help prod the Legislature into an early compromise.
By law, a budget must be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor before the new fiscal year begins on July 1. But last year, former Gov. George Deukmejian and the Legislature battled through the entire month of July before reaching agreement.
"I suspect that was worth probably five (percentage) points for (Proposition) 140," said Wilson, referring to the ballot measure that established term limits for legislators and sharply cut their staffs and benefits. In fact, voters approved Proposition 140 by less than five points.
Politically, Wilson said in the interview, the worst thing that could happen to both him and legislative leaders would be to let the budget fight drag on past the July 1 deadline. "They know that and I know that," he said. "Am I willing to look bad in order to get it right? The answer is yes."
Then, paraphrasing Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, the governor vowed to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." He added, "That's guaranteed to make everyone look bad, but I've got a responsibility to see to it that we get this thing done right the first time."
Wilson later repeated the "all summer" threat during a question-and-answer session with reporters after speaking at a memorial service for sheriff's deputies killed in the line of duty.
The one thing that Wilson is determined to avoid, aides say privately, is being forced to raise taxes a second time before he runs for reelection in 1994. The governor thinks his current proposal to increase taxes by nearly $7 billion--most of it sales tax hikes--and cut state spending by nearly $5 billion, together with eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases for welfare and other programs, will erase the deficit and "reform" the budget structure for years to come.
But Democrats are insisting, among other things, on an income tax increase for the wealthy and no welfare cuts. They also oppose Wilson's proposal to suspend Proposition 98, the law that guarantees public schools 40% of the state's general fund.
"They're probing (me)," Wilson told The Times. "They're used to sort of rug merchant bazaar haggling. And they're used to doing it about pennies. Suddenly, they're confronted with a situation unlike any they have ever seen. That's including the ones who have been up there 30 years. It poses very unpleasant choices for them. They know what is necessary, but what's necessary is very unpleasant."
Insisting that he already has met the Legislature more than halfway, Wilson said: "If they want to take everything off of the (negotiating) table and start from scratch, then we can haggle like a couple of rug merchants. That is not a responsible way to do it."
But Wilson privately is expressing optimism that legislative leaders will become more flexible as their June 15 deadline for budget passage approaches and they look into the abyss of another politically disastrous summer stalemate.
Wilson had particularly harsh words for Democratic legislators at the law officers' memorial service, attended by approximately 1,000 people at the sheriff's training academy in Whittier. Accusing the Assembly Public Safety Committee--"an oxymoron, unhappily"--and the Senate Judiciary Committee of holding up his anti-crime package, the governor declared that "criminals aren't doing time because the Legislature is wasting time."
"It is what has been going on in Sacramento for years and years," lamented the governor, whose grandfather, a Chicago policeman, was killed by a gang of cocaine dealers.
"It's difficult to believe that some legislators are actually proposing that we cut nearly $500 million from the state's corrections budget. It would have the effect of releasing dangerous criminals from prison," he added. "Let me say this in words no one can mistake: I would rather sign no budget at all than release an army of violent and dangerous criminals back on the streets to menace the people of California."
Actually, the Senate Republican leader, Ken Maddy of Fresno, has proposed cutting the state Department of Corrections budget by $600 million. He and other advocates of this budget-cutting approach insist that it could be done without freeing dangerous criminals.