Strange twists ahead in California budget battle as deadline nears

If there's no California budget by June 15, lawmakers will have to forfeit their pay. Five days earlier, the release of a new redistricting map could force many legislators to fight for their political lives. As budget crunch time approaches, the whole process is in flux.

Steve Yeater/AP/File
Gov. Jerry Brown points to a chart as he outlines his revised budget proposal during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on May 16.

As the June 15 deadline for a California budget approaches, lawmakers find themselves torn between two of the most fundamental political motivations: the desire for a paycheck and the desire to stay in office.

Last week, California's state controller announced that, in accordance with a ballot initiative passed in November, lawmakers would have to permanently forfeit any salaries or expenses for each day beyond June 15 that there is no state budget. That threat to lawmakers "is real," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

Yet five days before that deadline, a new bipartisan commission (created by a 2008 ballot initiative) will release California's new redistricting map, which could radically alter the character of some lawmakers' districts. Overnight, some who are currently in Republican strongholds could find themselves scrambling to win Democratic votes – and vice versa. The result: a wait-and-see approach toward the budget.

“I absolutely think the drawing of these maps is having a huge effect on what’s going on,” says Mike Zimmerman, chief of staff for Republican Assemblyman Martin Garrick. “A lot of focus has been diverted by those trying to figure out how their possible votes will affect their future constituents.”

The budget deadline comes at a time of flux. The Legislature has managed to agree on $11.2 billion in program cuts, but that represents less than half of the $26.4 billion deficit. After Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed the cuts, the state got $6.6 billion worth of good news as revenues picked up. But Democrats put that money into health, welfare, and child-care programs rather than deficit reduction.

Republicans, meanwhile, have rebuffed Governor Brown's efforts to call for a special election to extend certain tax rates that would cover most of the remaining deficit. The Republicans say they want significant concessions on pension reform – a nonstarter for Democrats.

For now, at least, it leaves Brown in a precarious position. He has refused to pass a budget of "smoke and mirrors," yet he runs the risk of losing Democratic support if he bows to Republican demands.

Jerry Brown can’t afford to alienate the Democrats because they have the overwhelming majority in the legislature,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “Governors have to work with the legislative majority: [Former Republican Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislature cooperated in 2006, and major bills were enacted.”

Noting that Independent Jesse Ventura in Minnesota had no support from either party and thus was a failure as governor, he says, “If governors don’t work with the majority, nothing gets done.”

Proposition 25 could change the political calculus in the capital, however. The voter-approved initiative that docks politicians' pay was aimed at forcing the Legislature to avoid the long delays that have come to characterize the California budget process.

“Because of Prop. 25, it is a near certainty that the California legislature will pass a budget by the June 15 deadline,” suggests Mr. Stern. “The bigger question: What will be in the budget?"

Prop. 25 also allows the budget to pass with a simple majority (previously it had needed a two-thirds vote), so Democrats can pass a budget by themselves. But if they cannot get Republicans to raise revenues through taxes and don't make further cuts, they could run afoul of Brown's pledge to pass an honest budget.

What could change between now and June 15 is the new redistricting map, set to be released June 10.

“There are going to be legislators in both parties who now currently have relatively safe gerrymandered districts who are not going to be safe,” says Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state and congressional elections. “And it’s not going to be an easy vote for Republicans or Democrats.”

The June 10 release makes the first projected budget vote, expected June 8, largely meaningless. Even after June 10, the Legislature might opt for a budget that falls short of Brown's standard.

“It will take the easy way out and continue to hope that the economy will improve sufficiently enough that pain can be avoided," Stern forecasts. "This is not unique to the California legislature; all legislative bodies are hoping for a recovery to make their lives easier.”

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