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The Two Budget Titans Who Refuse to Budge

June 05, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Sen. Jim Brulte is leaning in my face, all 6-feet-4, 260 pounds. His voice is raised, and he is accentuating each word:

"Because the Democratic governor cannot get from Democratic legislators the spending cuts he has proposed, I've got to vote for a tax increase?

"I've got two words: Heck no."

Heck no?

"Those are words my mother can read in her newspaper," says the Senate minority leader from Rancho Cucamonga.

Brulte, 47, by far the most influential Republican in the Capitol, does talk differently from the Legislature's most powerful Democrat: Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco.

Burton, 70, prefers more salty language that nobody will be reading in a family paper. The deep-voiced liberal especially gets hot when talking about politicians -- whether Republican legislators or a Democratic governor -- who try to cut services for the poor, aged or disabled.

Ask Burton whether it's possible to balance the state's books without raising taxes, and he'll answer acerbically, in part:

"Sure, it's possible. It just means 25% more cuts over the next four years than we're talking about. It assumes nobody's going to be born and go to school, nobody's going to commit a crime and go to prison, nobody's going to get old and go on SSI .... Anything's possible, except ... it won't work."

But Brulte is in his 19th century, high-ceilinged, minority leader's office trying to show me how the budget can be balanced without a tax increase, even with a shortfall estimated at between $30 billion and $38 billion.

Basically, he asserts, you agree that Davis' May budget revision is balanced. But you reject half his $8.3-billion in tax increases.

Half of that tax revenue comes from vehicle license fees that the governor can hike himself. But the other taxes -- sales, income, cigarettes -- are non-starters for Republicans.

So the rejected $4 billion in taxes must be made up. Some of it, $1.2 billion, can come from the state aid included in the new federal tax cut.

The Legislature could go back and adopt $1.7 billion in cuts proposed by Davis last month, but rejected by Democratic lawmakers. It could find an additional few hundred million in slashes offered by Davis in January, but then restored as the recall threat increased and the governor sought to appease his Democratic base.

There also are other available savings, Brulte says: $225 million by not renewing the manufactures investment tax credit, $245 million by paying schools only the minimum guarantee....

It seems to add up, but I'm no bookkeeper. I do know it would mean cutting back on

Medi-Cal health care and provider fees -- hurting lots of kids and old folks.

"I'm not voting for a tax increase," Brulte vows.

The wide gulf between Burton and Brulte on taxes is indicative of the entire Legislature. In fact, with only 10 days remaining before the lawmakers' June 15 constitutional deadline for passing a budget, they seem to be drifting further apart.

For the first time in anybody's memory, Senate Democrats Monday resorted to stripping the implementing clause out of the budget so it could be moved on a majority vote to a conference committee. In the past, the early budget always has passed on a two-thirds vote. But all Republicans balked this time.

Worse, in the Assembly the "spending plan" was stripped to one sentence: "It is the intent of the Legislature to enact a budget...." Fairly innocuous, but even that stirred a bitter 90-minute debate, capped by these comments from the two leaders:

GOP Leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks: "We will not support an increase in taxation."

Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City): "You wanna rumble, let's rumble.... You want to stay here, we'll stay here.... 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."

So Republicans won't vote for a budget with a tax increase. Democrats won't pass a budget without one.

The "road map" to compromise is obvious: Republicans vote for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase in exchange for Democrats giving on workers' comp reform.

"Why would I trade something they're going to give me anyway?" Brulte asks me, almost shouting.

Well, make Democrats toss in a spending cap, allow large energy users to cut their own deals with utilities, crack down on frivolous lawsuits aimed at extorting businesses....

Nobody's biting.

Brulte and Cox both are threatening the political careers of any Republican who crosses their leadership and votes for a tax increase.

This is looking ugly.

Regardless of any road map, the drivers are Burton and Brulte. They're the Capitol's leaders. Davis is distracted by the recall. Wesson and Cox seem lost.

If Burton and Brulte can cut a deal, it will sail through the Senate, be happily received by the Assembly and signed gratefully by the governor.

It seems the only way.

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