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Assembly Approves State Budget

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The state Assembly passed California’s estimated $101-billion budget Monday without granting Republican demands to continue a quarter-cent cut of the state sales tax.

Monday’s vote by the lower-house lawmakers on the state’s 2001-02 spending plan dragged into the evening before Democrats managed to scrape together the four Republican votes needed to win two-thirds majority support for the document. They approved the budget--which was 16 days overdue--on a 54-26 vote.

If Democrats prevail in the Senate, where they hold a more commanding majority than in the Assembly, the resulting budget will preserve the extra increment in taxes, potentially affecting buyers of expensive items. But it also would protect education, police and other programs that supporters had feared would be cut if the tax was not reinstated.

On Monday, the Assembly tally represented a major breakthrough in a standoff over the spending plan, which Assembly Republicans had blocked four times as they sought a continuation of the quarter-cent tax cut. Without legislative action, the tax cut is scheduled to disappear in January, restoring the state’s sales taxes to 5%. (Actual taxes taken at the cash register vary throughout the state as local jurisdictions add on their own levies.)

Gov. Gray Davis and Democratic lawmakers contend that the state cannot afford to extend the cut. They argue in part that the softening state economy and its effect on revenues would make that move irresponsible.

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Republican Assemblyman Mike Briggs of Clovis said he decided to support the budget after meeting with Davis administration officials and receiving assurances that the tax break and other incentives aimed at agricultural communities had Davis’ backing.

“I have a chance to be effective and deliver for my constituency and all of agriculture in California,” Briggs said.

“This budget raises taxes,” Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga said. “I think most Republicans in the Senate do not believe we ought to raise taxes to expand the size of government.”

Left with a budget that lacked true bipartisan support, Democrats had embarked on a time-tested strategy of peeling off the minimum number of Republican votes needed to approve the plan. They did so by padding the document and accompanying legislation with close to $80 million in goodies designed to appeal to select Republican lawmakers.

They used the technique to win over Briggs, Anthony Pescetti of Rancho Cordova and Dick Dickerson of Redding. Assemblyman David Kelley (R-Idyllwild) also voted for the budget.

Democrats sweetened the spending plan, for example, by adding $8 million to aid Klamath River Basin farmers in Dickerson’s district who are struggling with drought. They tucked in $6 million for the Lodi and Galt police departments in Pescetti’s district, and won Briggs over with more than $27 million in tax cuts aimed at farmers and their families.

Although pricey, those extra items add up to far less money than restoring the sales tax would have cost. Democrats say the tax would deprive state coffers of more than $500 million, a figure that Republicans accept, though they describe that as money that consumers will lose.

The plan now heads to the Senate, where just one Republican vote is needed to send the budget to Davis to sign.

“This is great news for public education, public safety and rural California,” Davis said through a spokeswoman Monday evening.

As it stands, the budget contains a $2.2-billion reserve--a figure that is expected to grow to $2.6 billion after Davis finishes making selective cuts to to new programs and ongoing ones.

The breakthrough in the Assembly materialized after Republicans broke from a long caucus meeting shortly before 7 p.m. Pescetti and Dickerson looked at each other and, in unison, walked to their desks and pressed their yes buttons, granting the last two votes needed for passage.

“There are a lot of good programs for my district,” Pescetti said afterward, standing in the back of the chambers with his wife, with whom he was about to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary, as local police authorities thanked him for his vote. “The bottom line here is that it puts a lot of law enforcement officers on the street in my district.”

Dickerson said budget items such as tax relief for the forestry industry and $4.5 million for rural sheriff’s departments won him over, as did the money for the Klamath Basin farmers.

“I chose to give my leadership the opportunity to continue negotiating with the Democrats, but they weren’t able to come up with anything, and it was time to move this forward,” he said.

In addition to the agriculture tax package, the Democrats included $1.2 million for a Little League field in Clovis, in Briggs’ district.

A weary-looking Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) said afterward that most of his GOP colleagues remained adamantly opposed to the budget because of the sales tax issue.

“This is a bad budget. It raises taxes. Frankly, it steals from transportation,” Cox said. “This is not a good budget for the state of California.”

But he said Democrats got certain special interest groups to launch an all-out blitz of his members by placing morsels of pork in the budget for them. He cited the agricultural lobby as a key factor in turning the Republicans.

County sheriffs and representatives of the Central Valley farming region could be seen Monday working individual Republican lawmakers in the back of the Assembly.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) lauded the budget vote, saying the Republicans who defected from their leader stood up against extremists in their party.

“We rejected the phony arguments of the far right,” Hertzberg said. " . . . Once and for all, there is no tax increase in this budget.”

“We’re glad that our will prevailed,” added Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco).

Asked about charges by Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster), the GOP’s budget leader in the lower house, that Democrats had in essence resorted to bribing selected Republican lawmakers to pass the budget, Hertzberg fired back.

He called Runner “Barbecue George,” and said he “had more pork in his district than any lawmaker since I’ve been here.”

Though Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton (D-San Francisco) had complained publicly about some of the new pork larded into in the budget to win GOP votes, Hertzberg said he expected the upper house to move the budget quickly. He said he also expected Davis not to use his line-item veto powers to strip from the budget the projects added to lure Republican support.

The budget approved Monday is largely the product of negotiations between the Davis administration and Democratic legislative leaders.

The plan proposes to boost annual per-pupil school spending from $6,678 in the last fiscal year by about 5% to $7,006 in the current one. It also includes about $200 million to rescue the state’s lowest-performing children and infuses about $30 million into the state’s hospital trauma care system. And it extends health insurance through the Healthy Families program to certain parents.

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Times staff writer Alex Gronke contributed to this story.


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