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Kernel of a Compromise

March 03, 2003

When invading American forces first clashed with German troops in North Africa and the British won at El Alamein in 1942, Winston Churchill applauded with a cautionary remark that might apply to the budget struggle in Sacramento. He said, "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

State Senate Republicans led by Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga have finally revealed a budget plan of their own. As Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) said (quoting another British hero, William Shakespeare), "The game is afoot." Now the two sides have something to discuss, even though the Republican plan is radically different from ones proposed by Gov. Gray Davis and Democratic lawmakers.

For instance, Brulte insists that a budget deal must ban any new legislation that would hurt California business and demands the repeal of labor-backed programs of the last few years, such as the overhaul of workers' compensation to boost benefit levels.

Parts of the GOP proposal can be the kernel of a compromise to begin erasing the estimated $35-billion two-year state budget shortfall. A freeze on higher spending over the next two years is reasonable, considering the circumstances. And the plan would restructure the state retirement system to reduce costs to the state.

Brulte insists there be no tax or fee increases -- which many experts say are needed to avoid crippling education and public health care. His plan borrows billions to roll over prospective 2003-04 debt to the following fiscal year -- a curious twist for Republicans who have long scorned such tactics and blasted Davis for doing the same thing a year ago. The Brulte keystone is a 7% across-the-board statewide budget cut on top of Davis' proposed $13 billion in reductions through mid-2004. It would produce an additional $5 billion in savings.

But if Democrats in the Legislature won't buy all of Davis' $13-billion trim -- and they don't -- it will be that much harder to get them to consider the across-the-board method, especially applied to health care or schools. The GOP's carrot -- a reduction in the funding cuts that cities and counties would suffer -- might help, especially if Republicans soften their stance toward tax and fee increases.

Brulte, to his credit, says both sides should be "willing to sit down and work." Daily meetings are in order before the disaster deepens. And a little Churchillian "blood, toil, tears and sweat" wouldn't hurt.

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