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Republicans Picked Their Budget Battle -- and Won

Sacramento

It wasn’t supposed to have played out this way. Given the numbers, it shouldn’t have: Republicans rolling over Democrats in a manner unseen in Sacramento since at least the Ronald Reagan era -- and probably not since the GOP-dominated 1950s.

Most people -- most people who were not Republican legislators -- believed it was simply impossible to close a $38-billion budget hole without raising taxes.

It was, of course, but now we get into semantics. The car tax was tripled, but by Gov. Gray Davis on his own, not the Legislature. This will generate $4 billion. A bunch of fees also rose, especially for university students.

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So this budget did require some tax hikes. And even then, the budget structure isn’t fixed. There’s already a $7.9-billion deficit projected for the next budget year. The newly passed $100-billion budget for the current fiscal year is balanced, but with costly gimmicks, including nearly $20 billion in various loans and fund shifts. In all, there are maybe $11 billion in actual spending cuts.

But Republicans did manage to avoid voting for a tax increase, despite Davis and Democratic legislators pushing for higher sales, income and tobacco levies. This is a remarkable achievement, since Republicans have little clout in Sacramento.

Democrats control -- at least ostensibly -- both branches of government. The GOP’s only leverage is California’s unique requirement of a two-thirds majority vote to pass budgets and tax hikes. For that, Democrats need some Republican help. And while Republicans can tie up a budget all summer by refusing to vote for it, they risk being branded by the public as obstructionists. So getting a budget passed to their liking on July 29 -- although four weeks tardy -- is a great triumph.

How’d they pull it off? They executed the right strategy and capitalized on an opportune situation.

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They decided to focus on one issue, have just one major priority: taxes. So when Davis and Democrats came at them with offers to trade tax votes for business-friendly bills -- like reforming workers’ compensation insurance -- they weren’t interested. Wouldn’t budge.

“I just thought we should pick a fight and win,” says Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who negotiated the final budget with Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). “And taxes seemed to be the fight I could rally most of our guys around. In the end, we rallied all of our guys around it. We didn’t have them all at the beginning.”

Davis and Democrats didn’t move quickly enough last winter. They might have nailed down some Republican votes for higher taxes. “There were some Republicans willing to vote for tax increases,” Brulte said.

Only one ever surfaced publicly: Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who objected to passing a budget that merely punted the fiscal imbalance into the future.

Republicans locked in with Brulte, especially after the towering minority leader on June 3 warned colleagues in an Assembly-Senate GOP caucus that he’d campaign against anyone who voted to raise taxes.

For the last two years, Democrats have bought off enough Republicans to pass a budget. That angered and embarrassed Brulte and Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks).

“To the extent I take anything personally,” Brulte says, “what I took personal was Republicans who sold out -- not for any great thing for the state, but for a little bit of pork for their districts, and then left the rest of us holding the bag.... That’s what offends me. Not that Democrats overspend. Heck, I expect them to overspend.”

The no-tax cause also was greatly helped by legislative redistricting that created a strain of right-wing Republicans more afraid of wacko competition in primary elections than they are of business leaders, let alone Democrats.

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But most important in all this was the huge void in gubernatorial leadership. Davis has virtually no influence in the Legislature. Worse, the relationship between him and Burton is abysmal.

The governor is seen as all sound bite, no substance. No convictions. No loyalty. Nobody’s going to break a sweat for him.

In the end, however, it was Davis’ revised budget proposal in May -- minus tax hikes -- that formed the framework for the final agreement. Davis won his top priority: protection of Proposition 98 guarantees for K-12 schools. But there was never a serious assault on that anyway.

Burton achieved his top priority: protection of services for the poor and disabled.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) won praise for leadership, locking up Assembly members all night in a sleepless torture chamber and forcing them to negotiate and vote.

Wesson kept waving the white flag of surrender on taxes, but some Assembly Republicans wouldn’t recognize it.

These no-tax conservatives, hypocritically, held out for higher spending in their districts. They and a few Democrats shamelessly made off with $200 million worth of pork. Some things never change.


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