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Budget bog: Time for pickoffs

Whenever legislators become frozen in a budget bog, I remember the words of two historic leaders.

One was the 19th century chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, who said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”

Meaning, as pundit William Safire put it in his “Political Dictionary”: “the need for compromise, asking not ‘what must be done’ but ‘what can be done.’ ”

My other favorite wordsmith was the “Old Perfessor,” baseball manager Casey Stengel. He had been the celebrated skipper of the seven-time world champion New York Yankees, but in 1962 found himself managing the newly created New York Mets.

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“You look up and down the bench,” Stengel said, “and you have to say to yourself, ‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’ ”

Not many. The Mets set a 20th century record, still unmatched in the 21st, for most losses in a single season: 120.

Casey’s question increasingly is being asked around the state Capitol. Can’t anybody here play? The budget already is 42 days late. The fiscal year began July 1.

But to be fair, California’s legislators are playing under much tougher rules than the Mets. The Mets didn’t have to score twice as many runs as the other team to win. Legislators do to pass a budget. This state is one of only three that require lawmakers to muster a two-thirds majority vote for the budget.

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Real world to fantasyland: There’s hardly anything in today’s society that is agreed on by two-thirds of the people.

The Mets also weren’t handicapped by term limits. A good player was not booted out of the league merely because he’d been around for six years.

Today in the Capitol, there are two rookie leaders competing in the biggest game of the season: budget brawling. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto look a little lost, to be frank. No one should expect anything else.

Two veteran leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines of Clovis -- are tearing their hair out in the extra-innings deadlock.

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They’re all trying to team with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has natural talent but still is a project and inconsistent.

Let’s back up from baseball to Bismarck.

In 1990, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel -- later to become president of the Czech Republic -- followed up on Bismarck: “Politics can be not only the art of the possible . . . the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering . . . it can even be the art of the impossible. “

“Impossible” would seem to fit the current budget stalemate. Legislators must fill a $15.2-billion hole in a roughly $102-billion general fund. They need a plan that raises taxes, reforms budgeting and still cuts more services.

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Republicans have pledged not to raise taxes. Democrats adamantly oppose a tight spending cap advocated by Republicans and balk at surrendering more budgeting power to the governor. Nobody wants to cut much more. Republicans talk up cuts, but really haven’t proposed any. Everybody seems to be swearing off more borrowing.

There probably never has been less maneuvering room at a budget negotiating table.

To vote for the governor’s proposed sales tax hike, Republicans must be satisfied with a Schwarzenegger-Democratic budget reform deal. Then they could justify their vote on the grounds that it’s the first time in modern California history a temporary tax increase has been paired with significant long-term budget reform.

Currently on the Schwarzenegger-Democratic negotiating table is a proposal to require that at least 3% of the general fund be socked away in a rainy-day account. Any “April surprise” windfall tax revenue that exceeded 5% of projections also would fall into the rainy-day account, after schools got their legal share. The rainy-day fund could be tapped only if revenues fell below prior-year spending, adjusted for inflation. If the rainy-day fund exceeded 10% of revenues, the excess could be spent for one-time purposes.

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That seems to fit within Bismarck’s credo of pragmatism.

Democrats are balking at another “reform” Schwarzenegger wants: giving the governor sole power in midyear to deny cost-of-living benefit adjustments and cut other state spending. I suspect there’s a deal to be made there somewhere, perhaps just beefing up the current law that can force midyear budget-cutting by the Legislature. It worked in February.

But bargaining went backward last week. “We are now at loggerheads,” Perata announced. “There is no end in sight.”

So the emphasis now is on a “pickoff” strategy -- not to be confused with a pitcher picking a runner off base.

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In a legislative pickoff, the governor and majority party go around minority leaders and entice votes from caucus renegades.

Schwarzenegger has been holding private meetings with Republican pickoff targets, trying to sell his reforms and convince them of the importance of finally passing a budget. Then there’d be time for water legislation and other pet bills, he notes.

They’re probably not openly discussing future judgeships or cushy jobs for termed-out lawmakers. But they probably should be.

The governor and Democrats need at least two Republican pickoffs in the Senate. They need at least seven in the Assembly, one extra because Assemblywoman Nell Soto (D-Pomona), 82, has been incapacitated.

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This Legislature still can avoid breaking the all-time mark for late budget passage: 60 days, recorded on Aug. 31, 2002.

But they’ll need to listen to Bismarck and artfully play the game.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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