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Bipartisan Group Presses for Solidarity on Budget Crisis

The dozen Assembly members from both parties urge their leaders to abandon backroom deal-making for public exploration of solutions.

February 25, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A dozen Assembly members, both Republican and Democrat, risked crossing party leaders Monday to call for a new cooperative approach to balancing California's off-kilter budget.

In a Capitol news conference, the group called on legislative leaders to abandon behind-the-scenes deal-making in favor of a thorough, public, bipartisan review of every state program and tax break.

They asked for hearings to begin immediately so the Legislature can meet its constitutional budget deadline of June 15. They proposed no specific cuts or tax hikes to close a shortfall estimated to be at least $26 billion over the next 17 months. But getting to that level of detail, they said, will be easier and more honest if Democrats and Republicans join together to investigate state operations with an eye to cutting expenses by billions of dollars.

"It is time to try something different," wrote the five Republican and seven Democratic lawmakers in a letter sent Monday to Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson Jr. (D-Culver City) and minority leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks.

The bipartisan group includes one-seventh of the 80-member Assembly.

Democrat Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg teamed with Republican Keith Richman of Northridge to launch the group. Their immediate focus is the budget. But the group's call for a frank, respectful exchange of ideas across party lines is also a plea to end political polarization on a larger scale.

"We're talking about trying to change the culture of the Legislature," said Canciamilla.

The group insisted that it is not trying to oust Wesson or Cox. Both legislative leaders offered vague endorsements of the proposal.

"I've said all along that we will need to explore every possibility and keep ourselves open to new ideas if we are going to solve the biggest budget problem in California's history," Wesson said.

He added that some of what the group proposes may be difficult for either party to accept.

But criticism of Wesson and Cox is implicit in the group's public display of frustration. Members complained about how little the Legislature has done to ease California's money troubles since it convened Dec. 3.

"In 83 days," said Tom Harman, a Republican from Huntington Beach, "we haven't really done anything."

Other members of the bipartisan group are Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel); Patty Berg (D-Eureka); Lou Correa (D-Anaheim); Lynn Daucher (R-Brea); John Dutra (D-Fremont); Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach); and Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

The group has met weekly since January and took a public stance only after much debate and worry.

"Regardless of your view of how we will ultimately get to a budget," Canciamilla said, "it takes a great deal of courage to even come this far, to even stand up and say that the two sides should be talking to one another in a constructive way about how to resolve the budget.

"It is not, unfortunately, an easy thing to do many times," he said.

Richman insisted that the group is not straying from the Democratic or Republican party lines simply by proposing that policy committees be teamed with budget subcommittees -- the fiscal workhorses of the Legislature -- to cut the least effective state programs and consolidate where possible.

"The people who are up here today are not committing to any specific budget solution or budget measure one way or another, other than the process that we've outlined here," Richman said.

As Democrats hold a majority in both houses, six Republican votes will be needed in the Assembly to pass a state budget by the necessary two-thirds vote.

Cox has insisted that his 32-member caucus will not support tax hikes to bring in more revenue, while Wesson has insisted on a "balanced" budget package that includes spending reductions and tax increases.

In the us-versus-them atmosphere of the Capitol, members of the bipartisan group risk being branded party traitors, criticized by future political opponents, and shunned by the legislative leaders who disburse money for staff and office expenses.

Republican Robert Pacheco of Walnut signed the letter to Wesson and Cox but did not join the bipartisan group on stage.

Pacheco, whose wife seeks to replace him in the Assembly when his term ends next year, said he would no longer take part in the group because "the job is done" of drawing the attention of Wesson and Cox.

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