Senate Nears Approval of $2.8 Billion in Cuts

Times Staff Writer

Expressing concern that delay will worsen California's budget problems, leaders in the state Senate are near agreement on the first $2.8 billion in cuts from the current year and plan to approve them with a floor vote as early as this week.

But as Democrats say the move shows swift action in addressing the fiscal crisis, Republicans complain that the cuts are not deep enough, pointing out that Gov. Gray Davis is pushing for nearly double that amount in immediate reductions.

"This should be looked at as a concrete first step, but not anywhere near the end," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata). The committee unanimously approved $1.2 billion in current-year cuts Tuesday, and members announced their intention to approve as much as $1.6 billion more at a hearing Thursday. That would be followed by a floor vote within days.

Fiscal experts repeatedly have warned that inaction in dealing with the state's budget gap -- projected to be between $26.1 billion and $34.6 billion over the next 17 months -- could cause California's shortfall to grow by hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

This point was compounded in a report released last week by the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office. "It is extremely important that the Legislature take timely and meaningful action to address the budget shortfall, which by any standard is extremely daunting, and will only get worse if left unaddressed," the report said.

Chesbro acknowledged that the cuts approved in committee Tuesday are the least painful, largely involving such measures as reducing overtime budgets in state departments, waiting until the end of the year to fill state job vacancies and shifting funds from one department to another.

The round that comes later in the week, mostly cuts in education, will be tougher.

Even so, Democrats balked Tuesday at many of the more dramatic current-year reductions proposed by Davis. In committee, they voted against taking more than $1.7 billion worth of vehicle license fee revenue and low income housing funds from local governments.

They also declined to approve a measure that would require Medi-Cal recipients to file quarterly reports of their employment and financial status, a move that budget analysts project would boot tens of thousands of poor Californians from the program for failing to fulfill the requirement.

"It's too painful to too many of our most vulnerable Californians," Chesbro said.

Republicans characterized the move as indicative of a party in denial.

"Some of these are the easy cuts to make, and they can't even make those," said committee Vice Chairman Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). "You need to do these things now, or it will cost an arm and a leg next year."

Ackerman said that although the Republicans support all the cuts moving forward in the Senate, he and others in the party will propose a more extensive list later in the week.

"We will make a motion to approve a larger list than what they are presenting," he said. "We support the vast majority of cuts proposed by the governor."

Davis is calling on the Legislature to cut $5.4 billion from the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Administration officials said they were encouraged by the agreements reached in the Senate, but will continue to push for approval of their full list of cuts.

"The governor wants them to go further now so we can save ourselves the anguish of even deeper cuts later," said deputy press secretary Hilary McLean. "We will keep fighting for the cuts we believe need to be made."

There is one area, however, where the Senate announced it intends to cut even more than the governor would like. That's the Department of Corrections, which was left largely untouched by Davis in his proposal. Chesbro said the committee is considering $20 million in new Corrections reductions for this year.

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