Expressing concern that lawmakers are way behind schedule in closing California's budget hole, Republicans on Tuesday proposed giving Gov. Gray Davis power to cut programs from the current year's budget without approval by the Legislature.
The latest attempt by Republicans to collaborate with the governor comes days after lawmakers reached agreement on a first round of program cuts to deal with the state's fiscal problems.
Republicans say the $3.5 billion in current-year reductions they adopted this week are too little, too late in the context of a budget shortfall of up to $35 billion over the next 16 months.
The gravity of that situation, combined with frustration over the lack of progress toward resolving it, helped forge the unusual common interest between legislative Republicans and the Democratic governor, whom some Republicans are seeking to recall from office even as others back the measure to increase his budget powers.
Democratic legislative leaders, whose party holds the commanding advantage in both the Assembly and Senate, say they are not prepared to support the idea, which they disparaged as political gamesmanship.
"This is an attempt to punt the ball and stay on the sidelines," said Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who called on Assembly Republicans to bring a plan to the table that balances the budget, as their counterparts in the Senate have.
"The way you get engaged is to come up with a comprehensive plan
Finance department Director Steve Peace said he discussed the proposal with one of its Republican authors while it was being drafted, but the administration is withholding comment until Peace and others review the bill.
In the budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Davis asked the Legislature to give him the authority to "make midyear budget adjustments when revenues fall significantly below anticipated levels."
The GOP embraced the idea at the time, but there was no Democratic support.
The latest Republican proposal would give Davis the power to make budget adjustments only in the 2002-03 budget that runs through June. Republicans join Davis in supporting another $2 billion in cuts from state programs over the next four months. Many Democrats say the reductions would be too hard on the poor.
"We are poised to have a budget gap so huge it almost precludes bridging, and almost precludes a budget solution," said Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman John Campbell (R-Irvine), who authored the bill with Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks. "This is a response to a historic fiscal crisis."
Davis angered Democrats last month after he vowed to veto a car tax increase they supported because it threatened to alienate Republicans. Democrats warned Davis in a closed-door caucus meeting days later that his effort to please the GOP could cost him support in his own party.
But Davis is not finding Republican support for any of his more than $8 billion in proposed tax hikes. And Democrats say that if Republicans want to make it easier for the governor or anyone else to push through budget cuts, they should also be willing to accept changes in the law that make raising taxes easier.
Governors of 36 other states and Puerto Rico have at least conditional authority to make midyear budget reductions without legislative approval when fiscal conditions warrant it, according to the National Assn. of State Budget Officers.
In California, the governor had that authority until the law was changed in 1983. An attempt to restore it through a ballot initiative was defeated at the polls in the early 1990s.
Scott Pattison, executive director of the association, said that while the bond raters on Wall Street are fond of giving governors such authority to keep a budget balanced, others question whether it upsets the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
"There is a reason for checks and balances," said Liz McNichol, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. "These cuts make a difference in programs. You wouldn't want to throw out an entire system just because you are facing a logjam at the moment."
Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit that researches the impact of budget proposals on the poor, said the bigger barrier to balancing California's budget is the necessity of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Only 11 other states have such a requirement, Ross said.