California’s budget process as sausage-making

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talks with his staff Monday about potential line-item vetoes while going over the revised state budget. He’s expected to sign the budget package today.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Beyond the mind-numbing numbers, the partisan bickering and the all-night legislative sessions was a web of forces that helped shape the state budget package Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign today. Some scenes from behind the scenes:

Whatever you call it, it worked

Schwarzenegger has long attacked lawmakers for fundraising during budget season, but that didn’t stop him from slipping away to the headquarters of the state’s big-business lobby earlier this month.

The governor was careful not to ask explicitly for any campaign cash, attendees said. But he thanked the donors for their past support and exhorted the crowd of California’s largest corporate interests to help spread the Republicans’ anti-tax message.

“Now, more than ever, it’s important to get your message out,” is how John Kabateck, state executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, recalled the theme of Schwarzenegger’s brief appearance.

The July 8 confab at the California Chamber of Commerce office came at the peak of the budget battle. It had been less than a week since the state had begun issuing IOUs, negotiations were deadlocked, and the powerful California Teachers Assn. was set to launch a $1-million barrage of TV ads attacking Schwarzenegger the next day.

The governor’s pitch, which followed similar sales jobs from the Legislature’s two GOP leaders, didn’t fall on deaf ears. Within days, a business-funded group called the Small Business Action Committee began airing TV ads. Schwarzenegger’s own political committee did the same. “Tell your legislators,” said the announcer in the business group’s ad: “Join the governor, get the job done, live within our means.”

Some arm-twisting left only bruises

Legislative leaders like to growl that it is the other party standing in the way of a budget deal. But often their own rank and file won’t come along without just the right nudge. That was the case as midnight approached on June 30.

The usually mild-mannered Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), was seething at a colleague who balked at helping him pressure Schwarzenegger into making billions of dollars in education cuts that had to be signed by the stroke of midnight, when the budget year ended.

Steinberg handed his cellphone to the reluctant Democrat, Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco. On the line was a member of the California Teachers Assn., perhaps the most feared interest group in the state, assigned to pry Yee’s vote loose.

It wasn’t enough. Soon Steinberg’s irritation echoed through the Capitol hallways.

“We don’t have time to waste,” Steinberg snapped at Yee, as they huddled with a representative of another teachers union, the California Federation of Teachers.

That seemed to work. In the final roll call, Yee voted ‘Aye.’ In the end, though, it didn’t matter. No Republicans would come along. Twelve o’clock came and went, and the proposal withered.

Unexpected, if not unholy, alliances

There was one near-constant in the budget talks: Dennis Hollingsworth was the first one into the governor’s office and the last one out.

The Senate Republican leader from Murrieta forged a close alliance with Schwarzenegger; the pair were repeatedly spotted by staff and fellow lawmakers puffing on cigars in the governor’s courtyard smoking tent, even after hours of fractious budget talks.

Schwarzenegger has long had his favorites among the legislative leaders; no one expected that one would be Hollingsworth. After all, the Christian conservative rose to power in February in a midnight coup by bashing the last Schwarzenegger budget deal and blasting the closed-door negotiations that spawned it.

Even more unlikely, however, was the kinship struck between Hollingsworth, an ardent opponent of gay marriage, and Schwarzenegger’s Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, who married another woman in a ceremony in Hawaii about 10 years ago.

They, too, bonded over cigars. Kennedy is known to have some of the finest in the house.

Tweet nothings from lawmakers

A new brand of honesty invaded the Legislature’s recent budget saga -- in 140-character chunks.

“A lot of standing around on the floor..Know[sic] one knows anything!!! At least I don’t,” Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) wrote on Twitter, the popular micro-blogging website that keeps missives short.

Maldonado was the undisputed Twitter King during the Senate’s all-night floor session last week, tapping out more than 80 reports on vote counts, caucus politicking, his use of eyedrops (“Half of an ounce,” said one post) and food intake (“a healthy muffin..maybe 1000 calories”).

More than half a dozen lawmakers typed with their thumbs to their hearts’ content during the marathon meeting.

“Just broke out emergency toothbrush,” tweeted GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine at 11:21 a.m. Friday.

“Painful!” tweeted Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) at 3:02 p.m., right about the time the final votes were cast.

Some were more contemplative.

The state budget, tweeted Assemblyman Mike Eng (D- Monterey Park) the day before the vote, “is kind of like the Bible. You can hear about it, but unless you refer to chapter & verse it doesn’t have the effect of the Gospel.”