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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Budget 'Dance of Death' Begins

July 09, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — You can observe a lot by watching.

--Baseball great Yogi Berra, from his new "Yogi Book."

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To paraphrase the renowned philosopher Yogi Berra, you can also hear a lot by listening. This and other Yogi-isms came to mind Monday as I sat through a long Assembly debate on taxes, spending and the state's $4.4-billion surplus.

The show reminded me of another Yogi original: It was hard to have a conversation with anyone; there were too many people talking.

The rhetoric--by lawmakers standing at their Assembly desks, speaking into mikes and straining to penetrate a din of inattentive chatter--ranged from statesmanlike to gibberish.

But quality of thought and verbiage mattered little to the outcome, which was preordained: The Democrats' tax cut proposal--one year, $1 billion, a quarter-cent off the sales tax--was passed with token Republican opposition and promptly vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who pronounced it "not good enough."

It was a single step in the annual budget dance--"The Dance of Death"--a ritual in which one proposal after another is ceremoniously sacrificed until there's agreement on a single survivor. A legislative strategist once characterized it this way: "Everybody dances around the fire. They throw stuff at us. We throw stuff at them. Everybody falls over dead and we start all over."

Of course, one of the biggest mistakes ever made in the Capitol was the installation of air conditioning. Back in the sweaty era of ceiling fans, lawmakers passed the budget on time and escaped Sacramento's summer swelter. Now, they're much too comfortable inside. However, I am conflicted on this. These days, when the politicians do venture outside, too many seem to return with their brains seared by the unrelenting valley sun.

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Some lawmakers, nevertheless, manage to retain their senses and are worth trying to hear through the clatter. One on Monday was Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), a two-term legislator and current candidate to replace Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance) in Congress. Kuykendall put this money squabble into perspective, at least for moderates.

"California's government is taking too much money," he asserted. "There's plenty of money to go around." Plenty of money, he said, for both a permanent tax cut and a substantial increase in education funding. The surplus is divided almost equally, he explained, between ongoing excess income and onetime money. Spend the latter, he suggested, on school construction or other infrastructure needs--"maybe save us from going to the ballot for bonds."

But only half the Assembly members were in the chamber and few of them were paying attention.

From the other party, Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), a Silicon Valley freshman, articulated the liberal view. Keeley said he'd prefer that every surplus dollar be spent on education.

"I was born in this state and had the benefit of going to California's public schools," he said. Fortunately, Keeley continued, he graduated from San Jose State four years before Proposition 13--"a permanent tax cut"--began the "permanent decline" of public education. "It was devastating to an entire generation."

"We knew all we had to do in high school was to apply ourselves and three things were going to happen in our higher education system: It would be world-class, it would be affordable and it would be accessible. I still believe it is world-class. It is, however, not accessible and not affordable for growing numbers of Californians."

But Keeley and Kuykendall and other thoughtful lawmakers might just as well have been pleading with the Capitol Park squirrels. And, in truth, some speakers would have been difficult to track even if there wasn't the peripheral prattle.

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You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, 'cause you might not get there.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

--Yogi-isms:

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The lead Democrats--Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco--have not appeared to know where they're going. But they did take a fork Wednesday.

They suggested a permanent, $1-billion tax cut, amounting to an income tax credit of up to $130 against the vehicle license fee. That's a big stride toward Wilson, who wants a permanent $3.6- billion cut in the car tax. But Democrats will need to go further, pushing any tax cut toward $2 billion.

The final compromise, very likely, also will include a "trigger"--or "toggle"--to switch the tax cut off or on depending on the economy. The pols will want to protect the treasury against a downturn if, as Yogi might say, The future ain't what it used to be.

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