California lawmakers wrangle over state budget billions

Requirement for two-thirds vote approval gives minority unusual power. The public is weighing in too.

ov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, accompanied by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, right, tells reporters that progress was being made in negotiations with legislative leaders on resolving the state budget stalemate.

California’s high bar for getting a budget passed -- a two-thirds majority of the legislature, one of only three states to require that -- is once again coming under fire as both parties continue bickering about how to close a $41 billion gap. As interest groups on all sides of the political spectrum continue to hammer legislators, votes keep getting postponed as each new idea appears to have support which then suddenly vanishes.

The latest plan -- which was to include a series of steep tax increases and spending cuts which pleased neither party -- was scheduled for a Friday vote which got bumped to Saturday when it appeared that no rank-and-file Republican would vote for it.

“This vote will cause political difficulty for lawmakers,” says John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Some Republicans will pay a price for supporting tax increases while some Democrats will pay a price for supporting spending cuts. “California is taking painful steps to balance its budget while Congress is vastly increasing the deficit in order to stimulate the economy.”

The latest proposal included proposed tax increases on personal income, retail sales, gasoline, and vehicle registration, while cutting a tax credit for dependents from $300 to $100. It would have also included $11 billion in borrowing, much of it by selling revenue rights to the California State Lottery. Dept. of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said that proposal would generate about $5 billion dollars next year.

G.O.P. lawmakers said to be holding up the proposal

But many observers privy to the meetings going on behind closed doors said that Republican votes are holding up the proposal.

“This budget contains $14 billion in tax hikes. This is the absolute wrong time to raise taxes,” said Senator Sam Aanestad, who represents northern rural counties. “Millions of Californians are out of work. Homes are falling into foreclosure. Business owners are going bankrupt. New taxes will only make these problems worse.”

Likewise, Steve Poizner, elected insurance commissioner in 2006 and running for Republican nomination for governor in 2010, issued this statement as a vote neared on Friday: “It is astounding to me that while the Obama White House is proposing a tax cut for 95 percent of all Americans, the Sacramento politicians are proposing a tax increase for 95 percent of all Californians.”

He said that California already has the highest income taxes and the highest state sales tax and that the suggested budget deal would make them even higher. “With car sales plummeting, dealerships closing and unemployment rising, it is foolhardy in the extreme to think that adding $450 in new sales taxes to the price of a car, in addition to reinstating the onerous car tax, is going to be a net economic benefit to our California economy. It won’t. Instead, it will make a bad situation worse and prolong the economic pain for California economies.”

Public weighs in on controversial issues

Part of the problem with getting a budget passed, political analysts say, is that when word of each slate of ideas reaches the public, reaction and response is swift and vocal. When announcements were made that legislators might slap a tax on veterinarians, for instance, local news programs across the state started interviewing exasperated pet owners who said the measure might make them euthanize their cats and dogs rather than submit to higher medical costs.

“I emailed my representative immediately when I heard of this idea and told him I’d vote him out of office next time around if this went through,” said Barbara Fister, exiting the Sherman Oaks Animal Hospital with a cocker spaniel. “They act like this is a discretionary expense when I feel like my dog, Duncan, is a member of the family.”

The California Budget Project, a nonpartisan fiscal analysis organization in Sacramento, estimates that 234,000 children statewide could be dropped from welfare rolls, including 75,380 in Los Angeles County. They also predict that home care services for 81,000 Californians, including 34,290 could be eliminated.

One thing slowing down the California vote, other analysts say, is the uncertainty of how much states will get from the federal stimulus package voted on Friday by the House and Senate. Estimates of how much California would get range from $5 billion to $15 billion.

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