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Hey, Thumb-Twiddlers in the Legislature: It’s the Budget, Stupid!

Sacramento

OK, can we get moving now? The Legislature, that is. Get moving toward a budget solution. Seriously and without detours.

Now that the over-hyped $100-billion “May Revise” of the governor’s budget proposal has been sent to the Legislature, do the lawmakers have any other excuse for procrastination?

To recap, the flood of red ink was discovered shortly after the November election. But the Legislature was a lame duck; better to wait for the new Legislature to patch the gaping hole.

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Gov. Gray Davis called a special session, and the new Legislature promptly left town. Nobody wanted to work through the holidays. Anyway, better to wait for the governor’s budget proposal in January.

Then came Easter break. Besides, there’d be updated numbers in the governor’s May revision. Best wait for the Davis tinkering.

It’s the same work ethic and timidity that habitually has caused legislators to produce late budgets. For 13 of the last 16 years, the state has entered a new fiscal year on July 1 without a spending plan. Last year, lawmakers lollygagged into September.

Davis announced Wednesday that the projected shortfall for the current and the next fiscal years has grown by $3.6 billion to $38.2 billion, in part because of missed opportunities by the Legislature to staunch the bleeding.

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Sure, there has been some movement. Small steps --spending cuts and deferrals, money shifts and borrowing. They total about $7 billion for the current fiscal year and, if carried into the next, conceivably $14 billion in all. So that’s a dent.

But there hasn’t been any real movement toward an overall solution, a grand compromise.

Republicans will need to step off their philosophical and political pedestal and allow some colleagues to vote for a tax increase.

Davis’ budget revision includes a relatively modest

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$8.3-billion annual boost in taxes:

* A temporary half-cent sales tax hike to pay for $10.7 billion in deficit financing.

* A higher income tax bracket (10.3%) for joint-filers making more than $300,000.

* A 23-cent increase in a pack of cigarettes.

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* A $4.2-billion leap in vehicle license fees. This soon will be triggered automatically because of the state’s sorry fiscal condition, Davis says.

Declares Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga): “Everything is negotiable -- with the exception of tax increases. They have to understand there are no [Republican] votes for tax increases.”

Then there’ll be no budget. State employees could be paid minimum wage starting July 1 because of a new court ruling. The state will run out of cash in August and won’t be able to borrow. And practically everybody who works for voters in Sacramento -- Democrats or Republicans -- will be a political loser.

Democrats should reconsider their opposition to Republican advocacy of a meaningful spending cap -- some device to squirrel surpluses in boom times to be available in times of bust. Davis strongly supports this notion. But most Democrats agree with liberal Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who has vowed: “Not in my lifetime.”

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Davis claims to propose $18.7 billion in “cuts and savings” in his revision. It’s not clear how much of this the Legislature already has approved. Whatever, Democrats will need to cut much more before a budget is passed.

The governor did some compromising Wednesday. He:

* Reached out to both parties by reducing his proposed community college cuts and student fee increases.

* Sought to please Democrats by eliminating proposed benefit cuts for the aged poor.

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* Attempted to appease lawmakers representing affluent school districts by canning his proposal to seize $126 million in property taxes.

* Went along with Republican calls for deficit financing.

And let’s hear it for borrowing and gimmicks. They get a bum rap from impersonal purists. Better to go deeper into debt and play fiscal shell games than rob poor people of artificial limbs, take away health care for low-income working families, bloat class sizes and fire teachers.

Here’s what should happen now in the Legislature: Nothing -- except action on the budget.

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Focus, debate, be creative, compromise. Large groups, small huddles. Formalized and casual. Shelve, until a budget is passed, those 2,500 other bills occupying time and energy in the Capitol.

Then concentrate -- as the governor urges -- on reshaping the tax structure to make it more stable and less volatile. Perhaps extend the sales tax to services while lowering the overall rate. Tax commercial property at market value. Reduce reliance on the income tax.

Maybe this is too much to expect, based on past performance. But it’s not too much to ask.


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