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Once Again, the ‘Dance of Death’

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SACRAMENTO

They’re doing the “Dance of Death” again in the Capitol. It’s the ritual that each year kicks off the legislators’ summer budget season.

One budget proposal after another is ceremoniously sacrificed until there’s agreement on a single survivor. Some summers -- such as the last one -- the dance is a marathon.

A legislative strategist once described the “Dance of Death” to me this way: “Everybody dances around the fire. They throw stuff at us. We throw stuff at them. Everybody falls over dead and we start all over.”

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The guy didn’t want to be identified because his boss was a principal dancer. Now, the ex-aide is a private consultant who still doesn’t want to be seen booing the performers.

“They think the whole world is watching,” he says. “It isn’t. For real people, it’s just another day without a budget.”

It’s easy to trivialize these little events in the Capitol because nothing actually is happening. There’s agitation but no action.

Barring a legislative miracle, it will be the 14th time in the last 17 years that the Legislature and governor have failed to enact a state budget by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. This time, Controller Steve Westly says he won’t make payments to private vendors for new supplies and also will withhold some school funds.

The dance began in the Senate Tuesday and continued Wednesday. Democrats twice offered a $94.1-billion budget proposal that included a half-cent sales tax increase, and Republicans both times rejected it. But Republicans never said what they’d cut from the budget to make it balance.

Because of California’s unique, abused and undemocratic requirement of a two-thirds majority vote for passage of a state budget or tax increase, six Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate are needed to break the gridlock. There is no crack in sight.

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Republicans are rock-ribbed rigid in their opposition to any tax increase. It’s almost a macho thing.

“You will test our mettle, and you will find that it is very strong,” Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) told Democrats during the floor debate Tuesday. “You will find that Republicans are not in the business of rolling over this year.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) replied to the GOP: “You have the mettle to stick together. The question is, do you have the mettle to lead.... Come up with a solution to help us out of this mess.”

Budget Committee Chairman Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), speaking for Democrats, opened debate by declaring: “This budget goes as far as Democrats are willing to go in cuts.... We do not want to destroy public education and health care.”

Veteran Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- noting that Democrats already had cut $11 billion -- said: “This is a lean budget, not a mean budget.... These are our values. This is where we’re at and this is where we’re going to stay.”

With nobody moving.

There simply is no way to pass a budget that’s honestly balanced without at least a temporary half-cent sales tax increase -- good for $2.3 billion annually -- to finance a $10.7-billion deficit-reduction bond. Republicans haven’t shown any willingness to vote for another $2.3-billion in cuts, and Democrats certainly won’t.

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Democrats say a $2-billion spending cut is the equivalent of closing 420 schools or shuttering 100 emergency rooms.

Oh, the Legislature could pass a gimmicky “balanced” budget with more shell games and costly borrowing. But that would just shove the deficit problem further into the future and dig the $38-billion hole deeper. Nevertheless, many lawmakers seem tempted -- no taxes, no more cuts.

Only one Republican -- Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge -- has indicated a willingness to vote for a tax increase. He and Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg recently proposed a budget plan that included a half-cent sales tax hike, plus significantly more cuts. Their proposal has been shunned by both parties.

Now, moderate Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont) is reworking an old proposal by Burton to add two higher income tax brackets: 10% and 11%, for singles making more than $136,000 and couples more than $272,000. It would raise $1.8 billion -- and be more than offset by the federal tax cut.

Because state income taxes can be deducted on federal returns, these wealthy Californians still would come out ahead of where they were before President Bush’s tax cut. A married couple with two kids earning $400,000 would net $7,800.

“When you consider the alternative -- draconian cuts in health care and public safety -- this is not a bad trade-off,” Dutra says.

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Republicans won’t be swapping. At least for now.

They’ll all being dancing. Awkward gyrations: sideways and backwards. Many need to change their dance step.

Myself, I’m heading to the mountains for a while.

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