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California’s grand budget bargain that wasn’t

The state budget crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and top Democratic lawmakers is the first in the wake of Proposition 25, and it fulfills both the fears of the measure’s detractors and the hopes of its supporters. It was drawn up entirely by the Legislature’s Democratic majority, which gave up trying to strike a deal with Republicans that would have included a raft of governmental reforms. On the other hand, it arrived for all intents and purposes on time, about two weeks after the statutory deadline but before the start of the new fiscal year July 1. California was thus spared, for the first time in years, the melodrama and confusion of another protracted budget stalemate.

That’s not to say it’s great policy. The budget is not realistic, counting on fantastical revenue projections as well as a redevelopment gambit that’s likely to be blocked in court. It makes deep cuts in state programs that will have unwelcome repercussions in years to come. And if the revenue projections prove to be as overly optimistic as they seem, there will be more damaging cuts to education, child care and health services. Nevertheless, it’s a more earnest effort to clean up the state’s budget mess than Sacramento has seen in a decade or more.

Proposition 25 allowed the Legislature to pass a budget and related “trailer” bills with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote, threatening to turn the GOP minority into bystanders in the process. And that’s where they ended up this week when Democrats unveiled a budget without tax increases. The Republicans’ main accomplishment was to force Brown to abandon — at least for now — his plan to ask voters to extend a temporary increase in sales, income and vehicle taxes. But unlike past years, when Republicans used their leverage to extract a variety of concessions on policy, this year’s deal left them utterly empty-handed.

That’s mystifying. A number of the Republicans’ proposals for pension limits, regulatory reform and spending restraints would have helped the state’s long-term fiscal situation and improved the business climate in California. And top Democrats seemed willing to sign off on them if a handful of Republicans agreed to vote for a ballot measure to let voters decide whether to extend the tax increases. But what seemed like an obvious deal didn’t materialize in March, when it would have been easy for the GOP, or earlier this month, when Brown was also demanding that lawmakers keep sales and vehicle taxes elevated until voters could weigh in later in the year.

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The reforms may not be dead, though, because the budget debate probably isn’t over. The plan announced Monday includes automatic cuts if revenues fall below the Democrats’ (rosy) projections, including a seven-day reduction in the school year and the elimination of state support for school buses. Rather than allowing such disruptive cuts to go into effect, lawmakers would be wise to try again to reach a grand bipartisan bargain.


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