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Budget Hopes Stuck in Neutral

Facing a Tuesday deadline, neither GOP nor Democrats appear ready to make a deal.

June 30, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Last week ended much where it began for California's political leadership, with no agreement over how to close a $38-billion budget gap, no agreement over who is to blame and no agreement on when a compromise might be reached.

But as the week progressed, the political drama beneath the Capitol's copper-covered dome took a disturbing twist, with potential casualties of the budget stalemate beginning to emerge. There were many.

Without a budget for the new fiscal year that begins Tuesday, community colleges cautioned that they might have to close campuses. State police cadets were told that they might never be hired. Parents of autistic children and children of Alzheimer's patients came forward to warn that if state funds weren't available, they would be hard-pressed to provide care.

State Controller Steve Westly said Wednesday that schools, medical providers and others stand to lose about $1.5 billion in state payments unless the deadlock is resolved.

Rick Rollens of Sacramento, the father of a 12-year-old boy with autism, joined with students, health-care workers and firefighters at a news conference arranged by Senate Democrats on Friday to call for passage of the budget.

"He has no ability to speak," Rollens said of his son Russell. "He is totally dependent on the help of the state for his services. At the end of the day Monday, if we have no state budget, the services to Russell and thousands of children like him will come to a halt."

Within the Senate and Assembly chambers, the mood was testy. Republicans wouldn't accept new taxes; Democrats wouldn't embrace deeper spending cuts.

In interviews, lawmakers compared the Legislature to a dysfunctional family -- one that has spent too much time under one roof and longs for a way out.

"It's not a proud moment for me to be part of an organization that's not doing it's job," said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge).

On the Senate floor Thursday, Democrats and Republicans got into a nasty round of finger-pointing, with each side blaming the other. Republicans complained that they were frozen out of budget-writing decisions.

"It's not true," said Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), chairman of the Budget Committee, his voice rising and his face turning red with anger. He insisted that drafting the budget was a bipartisan effort, but charged that Republicans have contributed nothing to resolving the budget deficit.

"Republicans feel they have been ignored," said Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta).

Still reverberating is Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte's warning that he will work to defeat fellow Republicans who break ranks and vote to raise taxes. The threat made a compromise more elusive, some Democrats said.

"It has had a very, very chilling effect on the environment," said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles). "That which has typically been thought to be the essence of politics -- the art of compromise -- has been crudely replaced with the art of intimidation.

"And in a not so artful manner."

Though officials tried to sound an optimistic note, there seemed to be little basis for it. The Legislature tried to pass a budget four times last week.

On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis told editorial writers that he expected a budget to pass one house next week. But he conceded that he was merely reading tea leaves.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), appeared no more confident. "We are hopeful, although not at all sanguine, about the fact that at least in the Senate we will be able to come to an agreement with our Republican colleagues. Although I would not be putting a lot of money on that at the present time."

Some lawmakers predicted that the Legislature may end up passing a budget that plugs the shortfall for the year, but fails to address the underlying imbalance. With the crisis temporarily averted, legislators could come back when tensions ease and try again.

Richman described it as a " 'get out of town alive budget': a budget that simply uses $17 billion or $18 billion in one-time solutions and rolls the problems forward into the fall or next year. And the likelihood is we're going to get a 'get out of town alive budget.' "

For all the gloom, there was at least one laugh. Nearly 30 Assembly Democrats last week dropped into Republican districts across the state to build support for tax increases they portrayed as key to a compromise.

In a teasing commemoration of the two-day "Save California" tour, the GOP printed up hundreds of T-shirts.

The white, black and red shirts tout the "Democrats Tax and Spend Tour, Summer 2003" and list the 28 cities visited.

"This is hotter than Harry Potter," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). "I'm on my third printing now. All the Democrats are bugging me for them," he said.

On the T-shirts at least, the Assembly had reached a consensus.

*

Times staff writers Evan Halper, Carl Ingram and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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