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With 1 Sentence, Assembly Lets Budget Talks Advance

Democrats pass unusual one-line measure expressing intent to get a spending plan.

June 04, 2003|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Democrats pared a 675-page budget bill down to one sentence Tuesday in what Republicans labeled an effort to avoid exposing internal dissent.

As a result, negotiations over a spending plan moved to a bipartisan conference committee that will hammer out a final budget bill.

The unusual parliamentary move came during a day of raucous floor debate in which Republicans railed about bloated state bureaucracies, state funding for abortion and the sale of human fetuses -- and consensus on how to close a $38.2-billion shortfall continued to elude the Legislature.

Republicans made their comments on the various topics in an unsuccessful effort to tack amendments onto the budget bill that ultimately passed on a party-line vote.

At one point Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia) -- to the confusion of some colleagues -- launched into an attack on the state government for what he alleged was the buying and selling of "baby body parts."

Mountjoy read from a list of what he said were prices for body parts collected from aborted fetuses: $600 to $900 for a brain, $500 for a "body trunk, with or without limbs."

Democrats used their majority power to quickly table the amendments proposed by Mountjoy and other Republicans. In addition to several related to abortion, the amendments included measures to close state foreign trade offices, abolish lucrative salaries for members of some state boards that meet infrequently, and allow schools to save money by contracting out for services such as transportation and landscaping.

After putting all of those amendments aside, the Assembly approved a one-line bill that said: "It is the intent of the Legislature to enact a budget for the support of state government for the 2003-04 fiscal year."

The bill bore no resemblance to the Senate version, which includes thousands of details of how and where state funds should be spent. Democratic leaders said the details were left out simply to get negotiations moving.

"Today is not the day to debate the budget," said Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach). "Today is the day to move the bill forward."

A bipartisan conference committee with six lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly begins meeting today to review every item in the budget and come up with a compromise bill. It's a task that party leaders hope will be completed by Sunday.

But that committee will not be charged with reconciling the fundamental disagreement between the two parties that threatens to stall budget negotiations indefinitely: whether to add taxes. Democrats continue to say the budget can't be balanced without them, and Republicans say they will not vote for additional taxes under any circumstances.

Legislative leaders will meet today with Gov. Gray Davis to continue discussions on that and other budget issues. The deal that is ultimately reached is expected to be brokered in such closed-door meetings -- with or without the governor.

Some lawmakers and staffers familiar with budget negotiations say the Assembly may have become too fractured to reach a deal by the July 1 constitutional deadline, and might instead leave that task to the Senate leadership. They say Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga are making progress on a compromise plan.

There were no such murmurs on the Assembly side. Republicans said the failure of Democrats there to unite behind a budget plan and opt instead to pass a one-line resolution suggests that some Democrats are uncomfortable with the billions of dollars in funding restorations that party leaders added to the budget recently.

"It is not typical or normal to do that," Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman John Campbell (R-Irvine) said of passing a one-line resolution.

"Could it be that some of you Democrats understand that it has to stop? That some of you understand raising spending now is beyond irresponsible; it is reckless? ... I certainly hope so."

Democrats insisted that they were just moving the process along, and rebuked Republicans for going on the attack instead of trying to work with them on a compromise.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) delivered an impassioned speech accusing Republicans of doing little more than "providing entertainment to the members of the press."

"You want to rumble? Let's rumble," Wesson said. "You want to stay here? We'll stay here. You want a budget on time? I want a budget on time, but I'm not killing people.... I will not allow the Democratic caucus to vote for a budget that is not sensible, fair and reasonable."

The latest flare-up comes as Wall Street rating agencies prepare to release their assessment of the state's ability to repay an $11-billion short-term loan California must take out this month just to keep the government running through August.

California has the worst credit rating in the country, and it is costing the state hundreds of millions in increased borrowing costs.

For the loan that will be taken out this month, those costs include a payment of up to $100 million to several banks so the state can piggy-bank on their credit to get a better rating. State officials feared that if the banks didn't back the loan, California could be given a junk-bond rating, driving up the cost of borrowing substantially.

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Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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