With the start of the next fiscal year only eight days away, Gov. Pete Wilson charged Monday that the Democratic-controlled Legislature is failing to negotiate over a new state budget, and is moving at a slower pace than ever before.
"I don't understand it," Wilson said in an interview. "They're off to a later and more leisurely start than I have seen."
Wilson is proposing a $75.8-billion budget that includes more money for a variety of programs, including public schools, but also a sharp reduction in the annual taxes that Californians pay to register their cars.
Wilson's car tax cut would drain $1 billion from government coffers in the first year, growing to $3.6 billion a year when fully phased in. The governor called for the tax cut after the state collected $4.4 billion more in tax revenue this year than fiscal experts had expected.
Responding to Wilson's remarks, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) blamed Wilson and Republican legislators for the budget delay, saying that they "refuse to budge on a [car tax cut] proposal that will devastate our ability to fund public schools, and will push our budget into the red after [Wilson] is gone running for president."
Wilson said he is willing to negotiate on his tax plan, but noted: "In order to negotiate, you have to receive a counter-offer, and a realistic one." So far, he said, the leaders of the Senate and Assembly have made no such offer--"to my shock."
"They're taking their sweet time. It's like they're in slow motion," Wilson said.
Villaraigosa said he hopes to offer a proposal within a week.
The governor's comments came as a joint legislative tax committee prepared to begin hearings today on no fewer than 90 tax-cut proposals offered by individual legislators. They range from one to end the sales tax on newspapers to one that would permit self-employed workers to deduct health insurance costs from state income taxes.
Most of the tax-cut proposals would pare only a few million dollars from the proposed budget, offering breaks to industries and occupations such as farmers, airline and credit unionn workers, and acupuncturists.
The Legislature's budget conference committee, which is attempting to fashion a compromise spending plan, has met intermittently during the last two weeks. Much of its effort is on hold until the tax committee completes its work.
Wilson said he had assumed that legislators would reach a budget accord quickly this year, given "their anxiety over it being an election year." Wilson, by contrast, is in his final months in office, and is willing to wait.
"I can think of better things to do, but I'm prepared for it," Wilson said. "I didn't schedule anything [for the summer months]."
The state Constitution requires that the Legislature approve a budget by June 15--a deadline that was missed again this year--and that the governor sign a budget by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
The governor and legislators have met the July 1 deadline only once in the 1990s. Last year, the budget was not signed until Aug. 18. There are no penalties on legislators for failing to meet the deadline. And court orders from previous budget fights force the state to pay state workers and welfare recipients, regardless of whether a budget is in place by July 1.
Democratic leaders have said they are opposing Wilson's tax cut plan because they want to use some of the $4.4-billion surplus to boost spending on schools by at least $500 million over Wilson's proposal to spend $500 million more than required by state law. In either case, public schools statewide will receive more than $30 billion in the next year.
Some Democrats are also pushing for as much as $700 million in aid to local government, while others are advocating a 4.9% increase in payments to welfare recipients, at an annual cost of $144 million, plus assorted other spending programs topping $500 million to help poor people.
"We're working around the clock," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), adding that Democrats are attempting to "enhance education and protect local government."
Wilson criticized the Democrats' education spending proposals, saying that much of the money would go to teacher salary increases rather than improvements in the schools. Wilson also blasted the proposed increases in welfare spending.
"If you're trying to provide the impetus for people to move from welfare to work, then you don't serve your purpose by making welfare more attractive," Wilson said. "It's a distinctly counterproductive policy."
On a related matter, Wilson said he is becoming skeptical that voters will be asked to vote on a bond this November to help finance construction of new schools. Wilson and legislative leaders had discussed bond proposals for as much as $9 billion, but Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on its components.
"I am losing that optimism," Wilson said. "It's not too late, but I don't see progress being made."