California nears budget deal to meet deadline. Critics pan it as 'gimmicks.'

California legislators will have to begin to forfeit their salaries if they don't pass a state budget Wednesday. To meet the deadline, legislators are rushing through a deal that could test Gov. Jerry Brown's campaign promise not to sign a 'smoke and mirrors' budget.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate minority leader Bob Dutton (l.) shakes hand with Democratic Sen. Kevin deLeon as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg looks on after the debate over the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday.
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As California races to meet its constitutional deadline midnight Wednesday for a budget, legislators appear poised to approve a rushed bill that will allow them to keep their income.

The issue arises because state voters passed Proposition 25 in November, which stipulates that lawmakers must permanently forfeit their state salary for each day that they fail to pass a budget beyond the June 15 deadline.

The rub is that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) made a major campaign commitment to pass a budget on time and “without gimmicks.” Now, with the deadline looming and all of Governor Brown's grand plans for a balanced budget blocked by a legislative stalemate, the plan that has emerged in Sacramento is one that reverts to the state’s “smoke and mirrors” default mode, experts say.

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It leaves Brown in a precarious position. Brown’s image could suffer a large blow if he signs the plan currently before the Legislature to plug the $9.6 billion budget gap, analysts say. But with no progress in negotiations with Republicans, he has little to waylay Democrats pushing the budget through.

A California Field Poll released Wednesday shows Brown already losing ground with voters. Some 31 percent of voters disapprove of Brown's job performance, up from 21 percent in March.

“It looks like Gov. Brown's middle name will not be ‘no gimmicks,’ " says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “While Brown has for months and months pledged to pass a gimmick-free budget, he appears to be peddling back that hard line as the constitutional deadline for a balanced budget approaches."

The spending plan that took shape Wednesday would tax purchases from online outlets such as Amazon.com, bump up car registration fees and local sales tax rates, and tack a new fee on residents in fire zones. The measure would also cut more deeply into higher education, public safety, and the courts. And it would defer billions of dollars in bill payments and revive a disputed plan to sell state buildings that was abandoned months ago because it was deemed too expensive.

“While [Prop. 25] punishes legislators – by not paying them – for failing to agree on a budget, does it also force them to hastily rush to compromise?” Ms. Levinson asks.

Other analysts answer that question, “yes.”

“On the one hand, lawmakers don't want to vote for pain. On the other hand, they want to keep their own paychecks. Their solution to this dilemma is to engage in the same kind of tricks that they've always used,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Republicans have dug in their heels for months, refusing to give Brown the four legislative votes he needs to put a tax-extension question before voters, another major campaign promise. Brown had touted that tax extension as the way to eliminate roughly half of the California budget deficit. The other half was addressed earlier this year when Brown signed $11.2 billion in cuts.

Republicans, however, have said that Brown must accept state spending caps and revise the state’s pension system to get their votes.

“Brown … lacks the political fortitude necessary to include any of the publicly popular reforms Republican lawmakers are proposing,” said California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro in a statement. “He’s obviously terrified at the prospect of crossing his political masters, the public employee unions.”

Republicans are criticizing a rushed budget.

“Make no mistake, this Democrat budget isn’t about solving California’s fiscal problems – its only goal is to ensure lawmakers keep their paychecks flowing,” said George Runner, a member of the California State Board of Equalization, in a statement. “It was never the voter’s intention for lawmakers to approve a sham budget simply to keep their paychecks coming.”

Democratic Senate leader, Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, has said: “It is important that we meet the budget deadline. We will meet the deadline.”

If the Legislature does pass the budget Wednesday, it will be the first on-time budget since 1986. Brown has 12 days to sign any budget presented to him.

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