State Republicans Calculate a Plan for Their Own Budget

Times Staff Writer

As Gov. Gray Davis and California Democrats wrestle with the gaping shortfall in next year's proposed budget, state Republicans have their own quandary: They are the state's minority party, able to block a spending plan but unwilling so far to articulate an alternative to the Democrats' approach.

Some in the state GOP say they believe that the party must soon shift strategies, adding to a playbook that until now has mostly involved simply opposing any new taxes. Pressure is mounting, they say, for Republicans to propose a plan of their own.

Without it, some Republicans worry that their party runs the risk of emerging from the legislative session appearing obstructionist rather than as having helped to solve the budget crisis.

The experience of their counterparts in Congress who forced the government shutdown during the federal budget battles of the mid-1990s haunts those state Republicans. In that case, Republican members of Congress were pilloried for bringing the government to a halt -- a move that many voters saw as bare-knuckled, partisan politics.

With that in mind, a few of California's Republican legislators have gone to work crunching the numbers and lobbying their caucus leadership to step out front with a demonstration of how it might be done minus a tax hike.

"They understand that this year's crisis is so severe that they will need to spend more time not only coming up with an alternative plan, but also arguing on its behalf," Republican consultant Dan Schnur said.

Party leaders have begun rolling out some components of a plan, including an across-the-board funding freeze and a cap on future budgets that would prohibit spending from rising faster than population growth and inflation -- measures that Democrats call draconian.

"We need to enact a hard spending freeze so there is no more money spent next year than this one," said Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, adding that his caucus is eager to approve most of the $10.2 billion in cuts Davis proposed in December.

But Brulte says it is premature to offer a detailed fiscal proposal that actually balances the budget while there is still disagreement over the size of the gap. Republicans say the governor's projection of $34.6 billion in the combined deficit for the current year and projected shortfall for next year is far too pessimistic, inflated by the administration to soften the ground for a tax hike.

Other Republican leaders say that even if consensus is reached on the size of the gap, they just don't have the staff needed to draft the kind of complex spending plan critics call on them to deliver.

The political risks of proposing a comprehensive alternative are clear. Any detailed plan would spell out exactly who and what would be cut and by how much. In contrast with standing up for the taxpayer, Republican leaders might find themselves accused of throwing the elderly out of nursing homes, firing public school teachers or halting freeway repairs.

But Democrats are determined not to allow their counterparts the luxury of simply sniping at the governor's plan.

"It's a game that will turn out to be a loser for them if voters figure out what they are up to," said Darry Sragow, an advisor to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) during last year's budget debate.

"This is the kind of situation that, if not brought under control, produces Jesse Venturas," Sragow said, referring to the former professional wrestler elected governor of Minnesota as an independent in 1998.

Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) argues that his party can come out ahead if his colleagues take some time to actually do the math and explain it to voters. He is pushing party leaders to adopt a platform that assumes the shortfall is closer to $26 billion, gambling that he'll be validated when the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office comes out with its projection next month.

Putting a hard spending freeze in place that would prevent any programs from being adjusted for cost of living, inflation and other things, he says, would cut that number in half.

Under his proposal, spreading the budget out over two years on top of that would then dilute the cuts needed to reach a balance. Richman's bottom line: The budget could be balanced with a mere 8% reduction in government spending.

"I think we can resolve this budget deficit situation by tightening our belts a little," he said. "The real question is whether Democrats are willing to spend less next year than they did this year."

Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) made a similar case in response to the budget proposal Davis rolled out Friday that included $8.3 billion in tax hikes.

"If you simply arrested the growth in state spending and reduced our overall state expenditures by only 9.5%, the deficit would go away by the end of the fiscal year," he said.

Some Republicans say privately that the blow could be softened by several billion dollars with hikes in vehicle license and other fees that the Democrats can approve without them, because they only require a majority vote, instead of the two-thirds vote needed for tax increases. That approach appeals to some Republicans, who could vote against the vehicle registration fees but still see them enacted by the Democrats in the Legislature.

Critics point out that raising the fees, however, will not be enough to close the gap and say spending freezes have limited effect in a state where much spending is locked in. State constitutional requirements for education funding and government contracts with unions, for example, make it impossible to simply freeze spending levels across the board, they say.

"You cannot be against any new revenue and assume schools wouldn't have to shoulder even more cuts," said Kevin Gordon, executive director of the California Assn. of School Business Officials. "I expect every major education group in the state to be very engaged in a campaign that ensures the budget does not get balanced that way."

Education lobbyists and others already are intent on ratcheting up the political pressure on Republicans who stump for deeper spending cuts. Unions and health-care organizations say they will join education advocates to run public campaigns against Republicans who cross them, a contrast to last year when, during the elections, many of those groups were more willing to work quietly with the Legislature trying to craft compromises.

"We're going to be in their districts mobilizing everyone who gets hurt by cuts," said Jeanine Meyer Rodriguez, industry coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, which has a membership of 500,000. "Any elected leader who just says 'no' needs to look us in the eye and tell us how they are going to solve this. We plan to force the situation."

The seats the Republicans gained in November have put them in a position to hold things up well past the constitutional deadline for passing a budget this summer, and maybe even into the next election. That's in contrast to last year, when the Democrats were able bring over a few defectors late in the game, just enough to pass a fiscal plan.

The only Republican lawmaker who defected last year who is back again is Richman, and he says that the kinds of tax increases the Democrats are proposing are out of the question.

"If Davis tries to pick off Republicans one by one like he did last year, we'll be around past Christmas," Schnur said.

Analyst say that would be a mixed blessing for both parties, each of which will be seeking to paint the other as obstructionist and out of touch.

"If at some point it appears you have a group of people who are being intransigent beyond reason, voters are going to react," Sragow said.

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