Sniping from the sidelines as budget deadline nears

Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman have plenty to say about the state’s lack of fiscal discipline, marveling at incompetence in the Capitol, where Tuesday’s constitutional deadline for the Legislature to approve a spending plan is almost certain to be missed — again.

The would-be governors express dismay at the bickering, shock at the inaction and disapproval at the influence of special interests as the state careens on the familiar path toward budget stalemate.

But neither gubernatorial nominee has stepped forward with anything that resembles a roadmap to closing the state’s $19.1-billion deficit. No strategy for bringing the state into the black nor a detailed plan of what social programs need to be dismantled, parks need to be closed or school programs need to be eliminated has come out of either campaign.

The legislators, aides and governor’s staff who have been working long hours to come up with detailed proposals that would deal with the problem — however inadequately — often grumble that if the candidates see better alternatives for fixing the mess, now is time to step forward with them.

Nobody is expecting that to happen anytime soon.

“The budget is a lose-lose for the candidates,” said Democratic political analyst Darry Sragow. “Nobody wins. The discussion is, ‘Do you want to lose your left arm or your right arm?’ It is not a discussion you want to have with the patient when you are trying to get them to hire you.”

Brown and Whitman accurately point out that the budget process is broken. But although there is nothing close to consensus on how to move forward in the Capitol, lawmakers and the governor have both laid out specific — and painful — plans for balancing the state’s books. Indeed, there are three detailed budget plans circulating in Sacramento, each reflecting a different vision of how to avoid a government shutdown or another round of embarrassing IOUs such as those the state was forced to issue last year when it ran short of cash to pay its bills.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing what amounts to a significant downsizing of the government, doing away entirely with the state’s principal welfare program, freezing school spending and greatly diminishing a multitude of other services that Californians have long been able to rely on. Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature have offered two plans to soften the blow — a cluster of tax increases proposed by the Senate Democrats and what amounts largely to a massive borrowing scheme put forward in the Assembly. Republican lawmakers so far have largely backed Schwarzenegger’s plan.

There is little for voters to like in any of the plans. They are sure to help solidify the dismal approval ratings being suffered by those who inhabit the Capitol. But most who have gone through the exercise of balancing a budget when revenues are plunging and the state economy is in the dumps agree that the proposals reflect the reality of what needs to be done.

When Brown was asked at a recent campaign event which of the plans he favored, he declared “they are all defective.” Then he appeared prepared to put some skin in the game by stating, “there is only one plan.”

But Brown’s plan was merely a musing on how the process of building an actual plan should be changed.

“Start at the beginning of year, probably even sooner, and do nothing but work on the budget and communicate it to the people,” he said. “This is a democratic challenge to the people of California to decide themselves. What kind of a government do they want? How much?... The people are going to have to decide what is the revenue and what are the services, and that is not an individual decision.”

Pressed by reporters to be more specific, Brown pivoted to an attack on his billionaire opponent, saying that her extravagant campaign spending suggests she will be anything but frugal with taxpayers’ money.

Whitman suggests she has, indeed, plunged into the weeds of budget policy by pointing to the 46-page glossy magazine she has distributed across the state. But the publication, although more specific than anything Brown has produced, has few details.

Given an opportunity in a recent interview to opine upon the budget proposals being haggled over in Sacramento, she balked.

“I’m ready to now see what is going to happen here,” Whitman said. “We’re starting to get some proposals back and I am anxious to see what the counterproposals are going to be and how we’re going to get this budget in balance. It’s going to take some very tough actions, no question about it.”

The last gubernatorial candidate to articulate concrete actions that should be taken to close the deficit was Tom Campbell, a former Republican congressman and budget chief for Schwarzenegger. In May of last year, before Campbell pulled out of the governor’s race and became a candidate for U.S. Senate, he presented a nine-page plan that included shrinking numerous government programs, forcing state employees to take deep salary cuts and imposing a temporary 32-cent gas tax increase on motorists.

The plan ended up being good fodder for Carly Fiorina in the Senate race, whose campaign drew from it in labeling Campbell as “Taxin’ Tom.”

“He was the only one who has tried,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. “And look where it got him.”

Not everyone sees the absence of specific plans as a problem. Steve Peace, who was budget director for former Gov. Gray Davis, said a candidate who has a plan for actually fixing the budget might as well keep it secret — otherwise it will be ripped to shreds during the campaign and become too tainted to implement.

“If you put things on the table now, you diminish your ability to be able to negotiate,” he said. “Is there value in coming up with a plan? Yes. But look at Tom Campbell. He is now a former candidate.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.