Democrats Seek Budget Advantage

Times Staff Writer

Sensing that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lost control of state budget talks, legislative Democrats were preparing Monday to take him on in a more forceful way.

Majority Democrats intend to begin pressing for a vote on their own version of a spending plan in hopes of proving that they are not to blame for holding up the $103-billion budget.

The measure would almost certainly fail because it would not get the handful of Republican votes needed.


Democrats hope to gain leverage over a governor who repeatedly pledged to get a budget passed by the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

“If there is one thing politicians can smell, it is blood in the water,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “That is what they [Democrats] are smelling, blood in the water and weakness.”

Cain said that unlike all the other big issues Schwarzenegger has tackled during his first year in office, there is no obvious mandate from the public when it comes to the budget.

“They [lawmakers] have a feeling the governor’s style has hit a wall,” he said. “It works fine as long as that mandate is there. When there isn’t one, the governor seems rudderless.”

The idea of challenging Schwarzenegger in such a way was unthinkable only weeks ago. But as the second week of the new fiscal year comes to an end without a budget, anxiety has been building: The state’s 80 Assembly members, 40 senators and appointed aides won’t get paychecks this week, and hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to schools are scheduled for the end of the month.

Some lobbyists are delighted to watch it all unfold. A prolonged impasse means that issues everyone had assumed were closed can now be reopened.

Groups are swarming in to take advantage, pressuring lawmakers to bring up all kinds of things that weren’t supposed to be part of the debate.

“We can’t wait around forever,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), when asked why Democrats planned to call today’s joint budget committee hearings.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) was more direct: “The administration is too busy planning his next road trip instead of working on the budget. We have to get the committee hearings going and start hashing this out.”

Schwarzenegger spent the weekend in Austria, where he represented President Bush at the funeral of the country’s president, a longtime friend.

Nunez said he senses “less optimism in the governor’s office to resolving this impasse.”

The issue widely blamed for the deadlock is disagreement over how to protect local governments from budget cuts in the future.

Cities and counties have the governor’s support for a proposal through which they would accept $2.6 billion in cuts over the next two years in return for constitutional protection against any future cuts -- even in a fiscal emergency -- without approval of four-fifths of the Legislature.

Democrats want more flexibility to borrow from local governments during an emergency, arguing that it would be unrealistic to expect such overwhelming support from an Assembly and Senate so deeply divided by ideology.

Administration officials say the governor made a deal with the cities and counties to get them to accept the cuts, and he will continue to stand by them.

“He’s not going to walk away from the people he brought to the dance,” said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

But as Nunez prepared to continue negotiating with local government leaders, he said those leaders alone are not to blame for the stalemate.

“Republicans are putting an insurmountable amount of pressure on the governor to force him to do more things for them,” Nunez said.

Palmer denied it.

“The governor has been very much in control of the process,” he said, adding that by putting their own version of a budget up for a vote, Democrats don’t do anything to help.

“As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘Never mistake motion for action,’ ” Palmer said.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, complained that it is Democrats who are stopping progress. They accused Democrats of being misleading when they suggest all of the budget is agreed upon other than the local government issue.

Republicans maintain that there are any number of issues where agreements have yet to be reached. They include how much to cut social services and higher education, as well as the possibility of repealing two laws many Republicans despise. One prohibits schools from contracting out for noninstructional services, and the other makes it easier for employees to sue their bosses over workplace violations that Republicans consider minor.

“There are a number of issues other than local government that have yet to be resolved,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge).

Republican legislative leaders reject the premise that they are holding things up -- or even that there is an impasse at all.

“I consider a true budget impasse when people aren’t talking,” said Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). “Everyone’s still talking.... Nobody’s said, ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’ ”

But as the days pass, lobbyists for any number of issues that many lawmakers had assumed were dead are rushing to resuscitate them.

“This is a time when mischief can occur,” said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg). “The vultures are circling.”

Canciamilla said that during the three days he was in Sacramento last week, he “heard from a variety of different interest groups on a variety of subjects. Many are concerned about something being, or not being, in the budget.”

Industry, school officials, unions and environmentalists are among the groups scurrying to take another crack at reviving their bills. Their efforts can lead to demands from the legislators who must ultimately vote on the spending plan, making it that much harder for party leaders to hunker down and reach an agreement.

“Getting a deal has become much tougher than it was a week ago,” said Fred Silva, a budget analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California. “There is a reason legislative leaders like to make a deal and get a vote within 24 hours. If you wait much longer than that, they start to lose their grip. A given group that didn’t get all they thought they should have gotten has a gap to get in there.... That group can roll five or six members and stall it to get a better deal.”

Chris Micheli, a lobbyist for industry groups, said he is watching it happen. Micheli said one particular bill he is working to defeat -- he declined to identify it -- surfaced unexpectedly in budget talks recently.

“If the budget had been closed a couple of weeks ago, this would not have happened,” Micheli said. “The author viewed the delay as an opportunity to bring it up again.”

On Thursday, Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said the administration is “starting to feel like there is a little bit of nickel and diming that may start to take place.”

Stutzman also declined to be specific about the issues involved.

It’s not just the governor who is feeling the pinch. Democratic staffers say part of the reason for the budget committee hearings that will begin today is to close some of the issues that remain open and to keep lobbyists from clamoring for changes.

“There is no interest in starting over on issues that have already been resolved after months of good faith negotiations,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

But it’s not just lobbyists who stand to lose at the committee hearings. Cain, the political science professor, says they threaten to highlight a lack of control of the budget process by the governor.

“If there was ever a moment for the governor to show no weakness, this is it,” he said. “He has to show he can exert leadership one way or another. He can’t let this drift.”