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Democrats Set Political Agenda for Forums

March 31, 2003|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When the leader of the California Assembly announced plans for lawmakers to conduct town hall meetings across the state, they were billed as a chance to hear what real people think about the budget crisis.

But a Democratic Party internal memo suggests that the audiences will be deliberately stacked with like-minded Democrats and witnesses will be hand-picked to "convey the desired message."

Republicans, who have yet to be invited to the events, accused the Democratic majority of squandering public money to produce politically staged events.

"These meetings are stunts and nothing more," said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks). "They would rather spend taxpayer dollars to conduct propaganda campaigns with friendly audiences than do the job they were elected to do."

The memo outlining the budget sessions is a draft agenda for the meetings that was circulated among Democratic organizers. The primary purpose of the public meetings, as stated explicitly by the memo, is neither to solicit input from the public nor to seek suggestions for solving state fiscal problems, but to "advance the Democratic Caucus message."

In addition, the agenda calls for organizers of the meetings to find witnesses who will "most effectively convey the desired message."

That, of course, would be the Democratic message, that tax increases will be needed to close the state's budget hole of as much as $35 billion without crippling public services.

The Democrats' town hall plan shows the extent to which legislators are going to get even the slightest edge with the public in the budget debate as costs of inaction mount, the June 30 constitutional deadline for enacting a spending plan nears and both sides hold fast to their positions.

Democrats want tax increases. Republicans say such increases would hurt the economy. Republicans want deep spending cuts. Democrats say those would harm too many people.

And the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recently reported that not taking budget actions already has cost the state more than $1.3 billion in potential savings. The state treasurer's office chimed in on Thursday, alerting lawmakers that an additional $656 million could be lost if the parties do not reach agreement on a proposal to borrow from state pension funds in the next few weeks.

Republicans say all that is reason enough for lawmakers to stay in Sacramento, instead of trying to build support for a predetermined political agenda under the guise of public meetings.

Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who is organizing the town hall events, makes no apologies for their seemingly partisan agenda. He said polling has consistently shown that the public supports his party's call to close the state budget gap with a balance of tax increases and cuts.

Ridley-Thomas said it's only right to make the public aware of the hundreds of thousands of people who would lose health insurance and the billions of dollars of additional cuts to education that would result from the GOP plan.

"Our job is to say, 'Let's not hide in Sacramento while we are making these decisions,' " Ridley-Thomas said. "Let's make them out in the daylight, in front of the people. If the Republican position is worthy of being debated, it can be debated by the people who would be impacted."

Republicans, Ridley-Thomas said, will ultimately be invited to the meetings that start April 11 -- even though they haven't yet.

"The Democratic Caucus message is rather clear and explicit," he said. "Others will have a different point of view. They are free to express it."

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