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Season of the Toothless Budget Crunchers

California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE
SKELTON

June 15, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Can't anybody here play this game?

--Manager Casey Stengel to his 1962 New York Mets.

*

This is the screwup season in Sacramento. Timidity. Vacillation. Stubbornness. It's not yet gridlock, but getting there.

The current issues: Car tax. Education money. School bonds. All, in one way or another, are essential pieces of a new $76-billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Today the Legislature will miss its constitutionally mandated deadline for passing a budget by June 15. Nobody will call the state police. Nobody really cares.

Hardly anybody expects the Legislature to pass a budget even by July 1. It has done that only once in the '90s. Last year it dillydallied six weeks into the fiscal year, frustrating private vendors who had to wait for state payments.

Ironically, the lawmakers--indeed, most officeholders--are on the upswing with voters. Polls and election results show relative satisfaction with incumbents. But the politicians are perfectly capable of screwing this up.

"There's this slow, sickening feeling that we're going to be here awhile," says Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino, meaning another summer of silliness.

A budget conference committee didn't begin meeting until last Monday. Members soon were squabbling over pork--how and when to slice it. There also was whining in the Assembly that the veteran Senate members were more skilled and, well, that wasn't exactly fair.

"They have an enormous advantage over us because they are more collegial than we are," one Assembly Democrat lamented. "We are much more fractured and partisan." And inexperienced at legislating. Hey, this is term limits.

*

The car tax--or, as they annoyingly call it in governmentese, the VLF (vehicle license fee)--accounts for the lion's share of money you send in for your annual registration renewal. It's an average hit of $185. For late models, the levy can be much higher--$440 on a new $22,000 car. The tax is based on 2% of the vehicle's value.

All the revenue goes to local government.

The car tax went through the roof in 1991 when Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature scraped up every buck they could find to balance a recessionary budget. A fee that had been $342, for example, shot up to $402. The extra tax money--presently about $940 million--helped local governments pay for new responsibilities that previously had been the state's: various mental health and social service programs.

Now the treasury is overflowing. There's a projected $4.4-billion surplus. And Wilson wants to use $1 billion of that to begin a phased-in 75% cut in the car tax. When fully implemented in 2002, the cut would be worth $3.6-billion. The governor contends that cities and counties still would get their money, but from the state's general fund. The locals are very leery.

Democrats are flatly opposed. They want to spend a lot more money on schools. Wilson himself is offering an additional $500 million for schools in the next budget. Democrats want $1 billion. But the big fight isn't over that; it's over future budgets, when Wilson will be long gone.

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) has proposed that instead of laying out $3.6 billion over five years to cut the car tax, the money be spent on K-12 education.

As for school construction bonds--which used to be like mom and apple pie around here--the Legislature still is floundering. The governor thought he finally had negotiated a compromise with Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) to place a $9-billion, four-year bond program on the November ballot. The proposal included rollbacks in developer fees and some construction cost reforms.

But Villaraigosa failed to deliver the Democratic votes. Now school bonds are about to get trapped in the budget negotiations.

*

Last week, Burton came up with an idea that was widely ridiculed as irresponsible; a shirking of legislators' duty. He proposed that the car tax vs. school money question be put to the voters in November. Let them decide.

Maybe Burton's right. Maybe, sadly, it has come to this in an inexperienced, term-limited Legislature. Let lawmakers handle the little budget items and turn over the heavy stuff to their bosses. Instead of "Big Five" legislative negotiations, we'll have the Big Five Million.

But, come on, this really doesn't have to be that difficult. Why not just return the car tax to its pre-1991 level? Then toss in another half billion in tax cuts so Wilson can leave town bragging about taxes being lower than when he arrived. Pump the rest of the surplus into the schools.

That's compromise and it's how the game is played. Or should be.

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