CA Democrats push budget bill but taxes unresolved

June 10, 2011 8:10:11 PM PDT
California Senate Democrats on Friday began pushing through a revised budget plan on a partisan-line vote even as they sparred with Republicans over tax extensions sought by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Senate debated on a budget plan that makes revisions proposed by the Democratic governor back in May. In addition to the revised budget, Democratic senators began passing accompanying bills mostly on party-line votes to use part of an unexpected $6.6 billion in revenues to restore some funding to education and services for the poor.

Democrats are hoping to find some Republican lawmakers willing to renew increases in taxes that were passed in 2009, but GOP members have so far refused to oblige. They stressed the need for government reforms instead.

Unlike before, California lawmakers will feel the personal effects of a prolonged budget stalemate if they fail to meet next week's budget deadline. Under Proposition 25 passed by voters last fall, lawmakers have until June 15 to send a balanced budget to the governor, or else they will forfeit salary and expense payments for each day they are late.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, opened the budget debate by presenting lawmakers with two choices -- tax extensions or deeper cuts. He warned that closing the state's remaining $9.6 billion budget shortfall through cuts alone will devastate public education, lead to deeper reductions in health care and social service programs, and create turmoil in higher education.

That amount represents more than 10 percent of the revised $88.8 billion spending plan the governor released in May.

Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown have already taken steps to reduce the state's initial $26.6 billion deficit by $11 billion, mostly through spending cuts. At least two GOP votes are needed in each legislative house to pass tax hikes or place measures on the ballot.

"The public doesn't like cuts and they don't like taxes. But as my budget director is fond of saying, I've yet to see a poll that results in a balanced budget," said Steinberg, who represents Sacramento. "It's time to finish the job. The state needs us to do it."

While Steinberg challenged his GOP colleagues to defend their positions in public, Republicans shot back and accused the governor and Democratic lawmakers of being unwilling to make concessions on pension reform, a spending cap and regulatory reform. Negotiations with a handful of Senate Republicans failed in March.

Now the budget proposal not only omits those reforms, it includes a one-year extension of higher taxes even if voters ultimately reject the higher levies, said Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks.

"You had a bipartisan opportunity," Strickland said. "You were given a path (to a deal). You said, `No.' Now, at this time, you're moving the goal posts."

Brown, a Democrat, wants the Legislature to extend the higher sales and vehicle taxes until September, when he hopes voters will approve another extension through 2016 in a special election. He also wants the personal income tax hike renewed next year.

In a departure from the governor, Democratic lawmakers in both chambers want the Legislature to renew the vehicle and sales tax hikes for one year so schools can count on funding. They would leave it up to the governor to set an election date for tax extensions beyond 2012.

Democrats also launched their campaign highlighting the harmful effects of an all-cuts budget without tax extensions. The Santa Clara County sheriff's office would lose $23.3 million, which would cost the jobs of 60 sworn officers and 29 support staff, said Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara.

That would slash into community-oriented policing efforts, a team focused on catching sexual assault suspects, methamphetamine interdiction and other programs.

"Cuts will increase unemployment throughout my district and across the state," Alquist said.

Republicans believe there are other ways to resolve the deficit other than taxes. They say they are not being obstructionists.

"We're not trying to drag this out to the 15th so everyone loses their pay," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. "But the fact of the matter is, we do feel we can solve this problem and get California moving in the right direction."

He outlined a list of changes sought by Republicans in return for putting tax extensions before voters, including a cap on state spending; pension, tort and education reforms; and revisions of environmental laws.

Senators also voted on bills that make minor changes to the budget and require just a majority vote. Following Brown's wishes, Democrats put forth legislation that would use the lion's share of unexpected revenues for schools, while families on foster care and welfare would get a smaller fraction. The bills also reduce the cost of prison health care and help secure federal money for employment programs.

The Senate, with 40 members, planned to meet through the weekend. The 80-member Assembly is not scheduled to convene until Monday.

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