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Capitol Journal: An on-time budget for a change?

Capitol Journal

The landscape will be shifting at the state Capitol. Political dynamics are in transition. And the first unmistakable sign may be the Legislature’s meeting its budget deadline for the first time in a generation.

The California Constitution says flat-out that “The Legislature shall pass the budget bill by midnight on June 15….” Yet, the lawmakers haven’t completed their budget work on time since 1986.

Who cares? Teachers sweating layoff notices, not knowing whether there’ll be enough money to fund their jobs in September. Vendors who sell to the state, wondering whether they’ll be stiffed again this summer. There’s a long list.

Then there are millions of disgusted people who don’t feel directly affected by the budget, but just understand instinctively that well-paid elected officials with generous perks should do their work on time. No excuses. That’s why the Legislature’s job approval rating among voters is mired in the sorry teens.

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I’m an eternal optimist who admittedly too often overestimates the common sense of politicians. But I do detect some rehab underway. I’m thinking they’ll kick their habits of intransigence and vacillation and pass a final budget by the deadline.

There’s no legitimate reason not to and plenty of motivators. They include:

— Finally a real penalty for violating the Constitution. If legislators don’t pass a balanced budget by June 15, they’ll permanently lose their pay and expense money until they do approve a spending plan. Some who see a loophole are fantasizing.

Voters authorized this punishment last year as part of Proposition 25, which lowered the legislative vote requirement for a budget — but not for a tax increase — from two-thirds to a simple majority.

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Ruling Democratic leaders say they’re mainly motivated to show the public that the majority vote will result in on-time budgets. Right! But among rank-and-file lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — the threat to their pocketbooks is scarier than union bosses or anti-tax demagogues.

Let’s hope, anyway. If lawmakers can’t be motivated by loss of income, they’re really beyond salvaging.

— Legislators next year will face two new moderating influences in the election system. The no-tax mantras of some Republicans could be less appealing to their new constituents than cries to keep classrooms and fire stations open.

One can only speculate about the impact of these influences. But the unknown is causing jitters among lawmakers with any political smarts.

The new “top two” open primary will allow more moderates to reach the November runoffs. There’ll no longer be party primaries for state offices. Politicians will be seeking the support of voters in all parties. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election. So two Republicans — or two Democrats — might square off in November, which could benefit a centrist-leaning candidate.

At the same time, candidates will be running in new districts drawn by an independent commission. No more legislative gerrymandering. The result should be a few districts that are more competitive, or at least not as safe for ideological extremists.

The commission’s draft maps for each district are due June 10, five days before the budget deadline.

Some Republican legislators may start positioning themselves for the new political realities, breaking away from the no-tax far right. Same with a few Democrats, who may decide it’s best not to seem so subservient to union patrons.

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— GOP lawmakers thinking about voting for taxes have been promised by interests at both ends of the political spectrum that they’ll be backed with campaign money.

The Service Employees International Union has been running TV and radio ads in potentially competitive Republican districts urging voters to support their GOP lawmaker — by name — “if he stands up for local jobs, schools and public safety.” That is, if he votes for Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax extensions.

The union has announced it will put financial and volunteer muscle behind Republican moderates in some open primaries.

The California Chamber of Commerce also has announced it will financially support tax-voting Republicans if they are threatened with recalls by anti-taxers.

— No one, except perhaps a handful on the right fringe, has the stomach for a no-tax, all-cuts budget. In March, lawmakers whacked more than $8 billion from programs, mainly for the poor, disabled, aged and tuition-paying university students.

Republicans couldn’t even vote for all that stuff. Democrats already are backsliding, moving to rescind some child-care cuts.

Democrats will not cut much deeper. And Brown has vowed every which way not to sign another gimmicky budget with accounting tricks and costly borrowing. That leaves taxes.

Two Republican votes are needed in each house for taxes that would honestly balance the budget and, as Brown proposes, pay off some debt and ultimately provide local jail money to house the felons the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered removed from overcrowded state prisons.

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As a price for their votes, the GOP is demanding pension, spending and business regulatory reforms. Same as they were in March, when both sides came close but blew a deal. Nothing much has changed since, except the state has reaped an unexpected $6.6 billion in tax revenue, lowering the deficit projection to $10.8 billion.

For me, the most intriguing, informative statement after Brown recently revised his budget proposal came from Sen. Bill Emmerson of Hemet, one of five Republican senators who had been negotiating with the Democratic governor in March.

“It’s clear that the governor shares my belief that we need to protect education and law enforcement and that an all-cuts budget was never a reality,” Emmerson said. “It’s time to get to work.”

The mood in the Capitol, seemingly, is to cast the painful votes and end the agony — prepare for the future and keep those paychecks rolling.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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