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Governor pressures lawmakers to end state budget stalemate

Times Staff Writer

As the latest effort to resolve the state’s monthlong budget standoff collapsed Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to heighten pressure for a quick resolution, warning lawmakers that a continued impasse would jeopardize critical state services such as fighting wildfires.

“Now is the time to come to agreement and have a budget,” Schwarzenegger said at a news conference, his first devoted to the state budget since legislators missed their June 30 deadline to enact a spending plan.

“Transportation projects will come to a grinding halt if we don’t pass a budget right now,” he said. “Republicans will have projects in their neighborhoods that will came to a halt. And Democrats will have projects in their neighborhoods, and the people will get upset about it.”

To buttress his argument, Schwarzenegger detailed a dire, though hypothetical, scenario in which state planes fighting wildfires could be grounded for lack of spare parts.

Schwarzenegger said seven companies that sell the airplane parts have stopped doing business with the state because they are not getting paid.

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“We are in the middle of a terrible fire season right now, with one of the driest years in history,” Schwarzenegger said, “and it is absolutely critical that we have all the resources necessary to keep California safe.”

However, officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, whom the administration had brought to brief reporters, acknowledged that those seven companies were among 300 the state uses, and that they had dealt with the dropouts by switching to more willing vendors.

“We haven’t reached that crisis yet,” said Mike Padilla, the agency’s chief of aviation. But he said he anticipated that more vendors would refuse to fill orders.

After weeks of wrangling, the California Senate had scheduled a debate for Thursday morning in which the Republican minority, which has been holding out for more cuts to the bipartisan $145-billion plan approved by the Assembly, was supposed to present its alternative plan for a Senate vote..

But with both sides knowing that exercise had no chance of winning Democratic support, leaders canceled the session and agreed to continue negotiations into the weekend and ratchet down the hostile rhetoric.

Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland), who had called Republicans “terrorists” for holding up the state budget earlier this week, told reporters his comment had been “intemperate.”

Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine told reporters that his members were holding out until Democrats agreed to enough cuts so that the state would be on target to end its fiscal year next June in balance, and not with a $700-million deficit as the Assembly plan was expected to produce.

Ackerman described as fear-mongering the predictions made by Democrats as well as the governor that essential state services would crumble if the budget fight continued. He said schools should be unaffected by the impasse because Republicans have pledged not to alter education aid.

He said he had lived through previous budget fights that lasted 45 days or longer without catastrophe.

“We’re all worried about it, but the world will go forward,” Ackerman said.

Despite a week of heightened rhetoric, an atmosphere of crisis has yet to descend on the Capitol. At a local nail salon, two GOP staffers were overheard complaining about a senator throwing a tantrum because a document was prepared in Microsoft Word instead of Excel.

Schwarzenegger’s schedule has remained typical as well: After his news conference, he again tried to pressure GOP leaders to compromise. Following that meeting, he headed to the Bay Area for a political fundraiser, where his upcoming 60th birthday will be celebrated with donors giving as much as $20,000.

Indeed, even the ominous prediction of fires raging unchecked has to some degree been a staple of Sacramento budget battles. When the 2002 state budget was 18 days late, then-Gov. Gray Davis denounced Republican legislators for “literally putting firefighter operations at risk.” That year’s budget standoff ended Aug. 31.

As of now, no one in the Capitol appears to see a quick resolution to the standoff. The Republicans’ demands go beyond a balanced budget. They also want to roll back part of a landmark law passed last year intended to curb greenhouse gases, saying that state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has been invoking the law to challenge building projects it was never intended to stop. GOP lawmakers also want to alter the way the state can spend public works money that voters agreed to borrow in November’s elections.

Though Democrats command a 25 to 15 majority in the Senate, a budget cannot be passed without at least two GOP votes, owing to a two-thirds vote requirement.

In the past, governors have been able to pick off the votes needed to pass a budget from the Republican caucus by making side deals with individual lawmakers. But Schwarzenegger has been unable to do that so far.

Members of the caucus agreed earlier this year that none of them would vote for a budget until a majority of the caucus agreed that it would be appropriate to do so.

But the Democratic majority has shown no inclination to yield, as cutting the state budget any further would siphon money from programs dear to their party’s heart, such as those geared to help children on welfare.

“We’ve really given as much as we’re going to give,” Perata said. “It really has to stop right here.”

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Evan Halper and Times researcher Patti Williams contributed to this report.


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