Assembly OKs Last Piece of Budget Puzzle


Ending a long deadlock, the state Assembly approved legislation Monday needed to enact California's $101-billion budget, clearing the way for Gov. Gray Davis to sign the spending package later this week.

The votes ended a fractious three weeks, during which Republican members of the state Legislature used their limited clout to block passage of a budget package crafted by Davis and Democratic leaders. Although Democrats control the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature, the budget requires two-thirds approval, and Republicans hold enough seats to prevent their opponents from approving the document without some Republican participation.

The result was a protracted--and ultimately successful--effort by Democratic leaders to peel off just enough Republican support to win passage of the spending plan without giving in to Republican demands on issues such as a reduction in the state sales tax.

But even as lawmakers patted themselves on the back for wrapping up work on the budget, fodder for another political fight was making its way to Davis' desk.

One of the key pieces of legislation approved by Assembly lawmakers Monday paves the way for voters to decide next March whether state sales taxes paid on gasoline should permanently be dedicated to transportation, beginning in the 2003-04 fiscal year.

Davis and Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature agreed to a request by Republicans, who sought to have a proposed constitutional amendment on the gas tax issue placed before voters as part of a compromise plan to garner GOP support for the governor's 2001-02 spending plan.

But if recent weeks have proved anything, it is that any deal is subject to opposition.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn. said her organization opposes the proposal. The group sent letters to lawmakers last week warning that if approved by voters, the amendment could result in a loss to the general fund of $1 billion a year.

"It has the potential to divert money from the general fund and could affect the education budget," said spokeswoman Becky Zoglman.

Others joined in that objection.

"We're very concerned that this deal . . . locks spending priorities in the Constitution that should be up to the discretion of the Legislature," said Paul Kumar, political director of Service Employees International Union Local 250, which represents 60,000 health care workers in Northern California.

The measure was one of a dozen needed to enact the state's budget, which is now 24 days late. Passage of the legislation was the last glitch in a battle waged by Democratic leaders to get the spending plan approved over stiff opposition from Republicans. The biggest area of contention was over a GOP demand for an extension of a quarter-cent cut of the state sales tax, an area where Democrats prevailed over Republican objections.

"This is a budget that enhances education, protects the public safety and puts money in the savings account for the future, and that's what we sought to achieve and that's exactly what we got in this budget," said Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a Sherman Oaks Democrat.

Countered Lancaster Assemblyman George Runner, who has handled budget matters for lower-house Republicans: "Our great concern is that many of those trailer bills were basically the effect of spending money as a result of an increased sales tax on Californians. That is the basis to our opposition to this budget as Republicans."

In an unrelated matter, Hertzberg said he planned to convene a working group to study a plan recently put together in the Senate that seeks to bail out financially stressed Southern California Edison.

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