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The State Budget Chasm Personified

Democrat Burton and Republican Brulte couldn't be more different. Yet they are the best hope of breaking the stalemate.

June 13, 2003|Gregg Jones and Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — John Burton and Jim Brulte might seem an unlikely solution to California's $38.2-billion budget dilemma -- a progressive San Francisco Democrat and a fiscally conservative Republican from Rancho Cucamonga, two political leaders of different generations and different worlds, divided by geography and ideology.

But now, at a time when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis has one eye on a Republican-led recall campaign and Assembly leaders are hardly talking, many lawmakers say Senate President Pro Tem Burton and Republican Senate Leader Brulte are the best hope of breaking California's budget impasse.

In a town where the summertime rite of budget-making traditionally falls to the "Big Five" -- the governor and four top legislative leaders -- the arithmetic has changed this year. It's now down to the "Big Two," many lawmakers say.

"If we have a budget, it will be because those two guys put it together," said Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda). "The governor is besieged by the recall. The Assembly just doesn't have the experienced leadership. So it's really going to be John and Jim."

The perception of Burton and Brulte as pivotal players in the budget drama begs a fundamental question: Can a pair of unapologetic ideologues with oversized egos steer California away from the shoals of fiscal ruin?

The Legislature faces a constitutional deadline of Sunday to pass a budget -- a largely symbolic date that is seldom met, but one that carries added significance this year. Without a new budget, California will run out of cash in August.

Burton has a pet expression for the spending plan the Legislature approved last summer: It was a "get-out-alive" budget that papered over philosophical differences by avoiding the kind of program cuts Democrats oppose and the tax increases Republicans loathe. While Burton hoped to never see such a budget again, he knows that this time around there are fewer options and deeper divisions between lawmakers than a year ago.

Even during the best of times, Burton and Brulte differ on most matters of policy, though usually with a civility that still allows them to address each other as "Johnny" and "Jimmy." But when it comes to the budget, the Senate leaders personify the chasm that divides Democrats and Republicans.

Burton, 70, says the budget won't get done without a tax increase.

Republicans "want to go after the elderly, blind and disabled," he grouses. "They want to go after poor people on Medi-Cal. That's not shared pain."

Brulte, 47, says a budget won't get done with a tax increase.

"From my point of view, what it takes to get an agreement is recognizing that the root of our problem is overspending," he said.

Their rhetoric suggests there is no room for compromise, but the reality is, Burton and Brulte are still talking about ways to find common ground. Both say they are close to agreement on transportation and local government portions of the budget.

"We're sitting down to try to isolate areas of agreement, as far as the Senate is concerned, so that there is a bipartisan approach on at least these issues," Burton said.

The discussions could chip away at what lawmakers and others describe as another stumbling block to an agreement: lingering anger among Republicans, who hold a minority of seats in both legislative houses, over being excluded from past budget decisions.

"His team has gotten what they've wanted the last three years and we're broke," Brulte said. "I think it's time for a new approach."

Brulte may never bring Burton around to his point of view, but the two say they have the sort of relationship that allows them to do business.

Burton, whose temper and salty language are the stuff of Capitol legend, describes Brulte as a good fellow and a principled politician.

"I like Jimmy," said Burton. "We get along fine." He dismissed with an expletive some of Brulte's ideas, then added that Brulte probably thinks the same thing about some of his.

Brulte, in turn, professes admiration for all that Burton "has overcome" -- a reference to the alcohol and cocaine addictions that derailed Burton's earlier congressional career. As state Senate leader, Burton is "one of the best" in California history, Brulte said.

"When you're in the minority, there are two things you want in a president of the Senate or a speaker [of the Assembly]: You want someone who is honest and keeps their word, and John Burton is both of those," he said.

No fan of Gov. Davis, something else he shares in common with Burton, Brulte can't resist contrasting the liberal senator with the centrist governor.

"If we've reached agreements, John Burton has never reneged on those agreements," Brulte said. "Conversely, the governor of this state has reneged on just about every deal he's ever made with Senate Republicans."

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