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Mulish Budget Battle Unique

California lawmakers remain stuck in costly partisan gridlock while legislatures in other states find ways to compromise.

June 02, 2003|Doug Smith and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

While deepening budget woes have sparked spirited partisan debate in statehouses across America, California is in a class by itself in the refusal of lawmakers to transcend their partisan differences and solve the state's financial problems.

Almost six months after Democratic Gov. Gray Davis defined the magnitude of the budget gap, Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to higher taxes, which they say will hurt the economy. Democrats, meanwhile, have just as stoutly resisted deep cuts to social programs, which they say will hurt the poor. And so the red ink continues to grow.

If the partisan gridlock is not broken soon, the state is headed for another late budget that will be even costlier than last year's. Controller Steve Westly has warned that the state government could run out of cash and shut down in midsummer if the budget deadlock drags into September, as it did last year.

Observers in both political parties blame several factors for the standoff: The state's requirement that a budget win two-thirds approval in both houses of the Legislature has given the minority party, currently the Republicans, unusual leverage; term limits have shortened political attention spans; and redistricting has created safe seats in contests between parties but has made some officials fear primary challenges.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Arizona budget -- An article in Monday's California section incorrectly said Arizona requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass a budget. A two-thirds vote is required only to raise taxes. The article should have said the state's Republican lawmakers were unable to get a majority to pass their budget bill.

The combination, many say, has proved a recipe for deadlock.

By contrast, other states, whether their leadership is dominated by Democrats or Republicans, are moving through a thicket of partisan politics to meet budget deadlines and make the decisions to bring spending and revenue into line.

Some are leaning toward tax increases, others to service cuts. Some are balancing the two. Even in states where party rhetoric seems as hot as California's, an underlying spirit of bipartisanship appears to be keeping both sides focused on finding an eventual solution.

"We'll just go back to the table and start negotiating," said Michelle Sullivan, spokeswoman for Connecticut's Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, after he vetoed the Democratic-controlled Legislature's package of tax increases. "It may take a little longer, but we always feel we'll get there."

Already in a number of states, Republican-dominated legislatures or GOP governors have acceded to tax increases and Democrats to cuts in social services.

In conservative Idaho, for instance, Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne decided that after two years of budget cutting, critical public services could not survive the state's $154-million shortfall in the coming year without a tax increase.

"It took me a while to come to this conclusion," Kempthorne told the staunchly anti-tax Republican-controlled Legislature in his January budget message. "It will take you a long time."

And it did. After a record 118-day session, reluctant lawmakers gave Kempthorne sales tax and cigarette tax increases to protect schools from spending cuts.

In New York, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed the budget plan passed by lawmakers, because it contained a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax and an income tax surcharge for upper-income residents. (Both income and sales tax hikes are part of Davis' proposal for closing California's shortfall as well.)

But New York lawmakers of both parties joined forces to override the governor's vetoes and impose the taxes. Additional tax increases for New York City also won approval.

Pataki was livid about the Legislature's "tax-and-spend budget," but Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, also a Republican, defended the tax hikes as "the least onerous way to provide revenues" to avoid huge cuts in education and health care for the poor.

"There are no easy choices," Bruno said. "When you are dealing in a bipartisan way, you have to be willing to negotiate in good faith and be willing to really compromise."

But in California, one of only three states where a two-thirds vote is required to pass a budget, compromise has been difficult to achieve. Instead, members on both sides of the aisle are accusing each other of treachery and stupidity.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said there would not be a budget without tax increases, fuming in a stream of vulgarity at Republicans who, in his view, know full well that they can't close a $38-billion gap on cuts alone.

"There isn't one Republican who will vote to cut the schools like you would have to," Burton said. "Their deal doesn't work. Anybody who can add two and two up to four says it doesn't work."

Only moderately less combative, Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) said: "The liberals in Sacramento are in denial" about the nature of the budget problem. "It's a spending problem."

Brulte accused the Democrats of dealing in bad faith. Davis, he said, adopted the Republicans' idea of borrowing to cover the deficit, but then proposed restoring some money to state programs that Republicans want to see cut.

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