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To No One's Surprise, Deadline for State Budget Action Is Missed

Legislature: It's been a dozen years since a spending plan was passed on time, and the tradition of non-action was upheld Monday.

June 16, 1998|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — With some minor jousting in the Assembly aside, lawmakers adjourned Monday with little fanfare after once again failing to meet the state constitutional deadline of June 15 for approving a state budget and sending it to the governor.

The spectacle of lawmakers violating the state Constitution is an annual event in Sacramento; the Legislature has not met the deadline since 1986. This year, the public hand-wringing was almost an afterthought, and halfhearted at best.

"I wish I could tell you it came as a shock and a surprise," Gov. Pete Wilson said Monday.

The Constitution does not impose a penalty on lawmakers for failing to meet the deadline. Nor is there a penalty on legislators and the governor for failing to have a budget signed by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

During the recession of the early 1990s, when tax revenue plummeted, lawmakers and Wilson explained the delay by noting that they were confronted with tough, often heart-wrenching choices about how to cut billions from the budget.

This year, there is a budget fight despite a bustling economy and a surplus of $4.4 billion, boosting the budget for next year to at least $76 billion.

Democrats want to use the windfall to increase spending on schools by at least $1 billion over what is required by law, to more than $31 billion.

While Republicans also seem prepared to give schools a hike, they are lining up behind Wilson's plan to cut the car registration tax by $1 billion next year, rising to $3.6 billion annually when it is fully phased in after the turn of the century.

"The question is, 'What's the highest priority?' " said Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego). "I don't think you can give education too much." She described Wilson's tax cut as "just too huge."

The Legislature's budget conference committee, composed of three Assembly members and three senators, met for a few hours over the weekend and continued meeting Monday, going through the budget item by item in an attempt to reach compromises.

"There is need to make haste," Wilson said.

When the conference committee bogs down, Wilson and legislative leaders from the Senate and Assembly will begin meeting in an effort to reach an accord on a final spending plan.

On Monday, however, there was little urgency. The passing of the deadline elicited no remarks in the Senate. And it was about to pass without mention in the Assembly.

But as the lower house was about to adjourn, Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) declared: "I can't allow the opportunity to pass without noting with deep regret that we are adjourning on . . . the date that the Constitution requires that we pass a budget and send it to the governor."

From there, Democrats and Republicans engaged in about 10 minutes of mutual finger-pointing.

Democrats, who control the lower house, insisted that they are working hard to get a budget in place. Republicans chided them for spending only a few hours working on the budget during the past weekend.

"How many hours did you work over the weekend?" Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington) shouted across the chambers at Republicans.

With or without a budget, state workers continue to get paid, as do welfare recipients. Lawsuits filed in past budget standoffs compel the state to meet most of its financial obligations whether or not a budget is in place.

Legislators, who are paid monthly, don't start feeling pressure until the end of July, and only then if the state controller chooses not to issue them checks.

The biggest losers in a budget standoff are private vendors, who supply state government and private facilities that care for indigents, such as the mentally ill, under state contracts. Their checks will start getting withheld in mid-July and August if a budget is not approved.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, attorney Richard Fine said Monday that he plans to sue the state to compel lawmakers to approve a budget or not issue paychecks to state workers and others. He filed a similar suit last summer after the budget standoff was several weeks old, but the case was dismissed after Wilson signed the budget on Aug. 18.

"The difference now is that it's more timely," Fine said. "They have the opportunity to either pass the budget or close down the government, which is what they should do when they don't have a budget."

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