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Budget Battle's Strain Showing in the Assembly


SACRAMENTO — It happened Sunday night, at 10:30 or so, during a rare pause in the grueling state budget debate. Five lawmakers from Los Angeles County were gathered on the Assembly floor when one of them--Martha Escutia--suddenly burst into song.

Catching the spirit, her colleagues joined in. After a rendition of "My Girl," the quartet tried some Joni Mitchell--hoping her tunes would have a mellowing influence--and concluded with a medley of Motown. Legislators looking on were impressed, and even gave the group a name: Martha and the Members.

"We've been working 16 hours a day on the budget," Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) explained later. "Singing some '50s and '60s songs during the break just felt good."

For a month now, the state Capitol has been engulfed in Budget Battle 1995, a fight that continues today. Staffers aren't getting paid, businesses reliant on state funds are steaming and Californians at large are wondering--once again--why the Legislature can't balance its books on time.

Weary from long nights of debate about abortion funding, education cuts and the fiscal future of Los Angeles County, Assembly members do what they can to cope. Democrats sing and swap neck rubs. Republicans smoke cigars and gossip on the balcony.

And one lawmaker--described by colleagues as a "budget purist"--simply boycotts the whole affair and buries his nose in a juicy novel, refusing to say a word.

It's a strange scene but, in contrast to fights earlier this year over the Assembly speakership, a remarkably calm one. Despite the wide gulf that divides members on such sensitive issues as welfare cuts, the Assembly's budget warriors are behaving with considerable decorum--standing firm in their resolve but doing so politely.

"I remember in years past we had personal attacks, yelling, screaming, finger-pointing, shoving--all sorts of nasty things," recalled Assemblyman Sal Cannella (D-Ceres). "This year, people have strong positions, but they're respectful of each other."

Occasionally, of course, tempers flare, voices rise, cheeks flush. Sunday night was a case in point.

Seeking to pressure members into reaching agreement, the Assembly's presiding officer ordered that the doors to the chambers be locked. Most lawmakers took it in stride, but one--Democrat Diane Martinez of Monterey Park--balked and made a jailbreak.

Before anyone could stop her, Martinez slipped out and marched toward her office. Ordered to retrieve her, a sergeant-at-arms took off in hot pursuit, begging her to return to the floor.

"They're not serious about passing a budget," Martinez barked at the frazzled sergeant. "I twiddled around here all last night. I'm not going to twiddle around here again tonight."

Upon reaching her office, Martinez stomped inside and slammed the door, locking it behind her. But that didn't stop the chief sergeant, Charles Bell, who used a passkey to enter.

Five minutes later, Bell emerged--alone--looking grim. He refused to comment, but Martinez, asked about the episode later, said, "Like drugs, I just said no."

Others were similarly frustrated by the budget impasse but found ways to endure. In the Republican lounge Sunday night, Assembly members waiting out yet another break in the action took refuge in entertainment, watching "The Terminator" with Arnold Schwarzenegger on their big-screen TV.

Card games were also popular in the GOP lounge, said Tom Bordonaro (R-Paso Robles).

Poker, a reporter asked?

"Gambling is illegal in this state," Bordonaro replied. "Old maid is our game."

In the Democratic lounge, meanwhile, lawmakers confronted one of the ever-present downsides of budget gridlock--a dwindling supply of snacks. Furnished by the legislators themselves, the pantry has been stripped of its healthful items, leaving only a paltry collection of junk food.

"We're down to potato chips, pretzels and Popsicles," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). "And when you're doing all this pacing and debating, you tend to stuff your face."

There are those who aren't pacing, or eating, or doing much of anything during the budget debate. Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) has spent the past days sitting at his desk on the Assembly floor reading Mark Helprin's latest novel, "Memoir From Antproof Case."

"It's really terrific, about a guy in his 80s who is contemplating death while he teaches English to cadets at the Brazilian Naval Academy," said Isenberg, an Assembly veteran. His retreat into reading represents a quixotic protest against his colleagues' willingness to adopt a budget he calls unbalanced and irresponsible.

"I've proposed amendments to balance the budget, guarantee a reserve, declare we're going to pay off our loans and not borrow money unless we have a way to pay it off," Isenberg said. "I've proposed them nine times and they've been rejected nine times. So what's the point?"

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