SACRAMENTO — California has a huge deficit, a looming cash crisis, an angry public and pressure to raise taxes -- and in this dismal state of affairs, the state's minority Republicans see opportunity.
GOP lawmakers hope to use their leverage over the state budget, which cannot pass without some of their votes, to roll back landmark policies implemented by Democrats and the governor. Among them are curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, regulations banning the dirtiest diesel engines and rules dictating when employers must provide lunch breaks for workers.
None of those laws has any direct connection to the state budget; changing them will do nothing to close California's $15.2-billion deficit. And the Democrats who control the Legislature already have rejected Republican proposals to delay or eliminate the laws through the regular legislative process.
But as pressure mounts on lawmakers to resolve the budget crisis, the GOP's renewed requests could get some traction. Republican clout grows along with the state's financial problems -- at least during the summer budget season.
"We think the budget is an appropriate place to talk about these issues," said Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster). "We are setting them on the table for discussion."
Runner acknowledges that the proposals won't help balance the books in the coming fiscal year, but he argues that they would stimulate the economy and thus generate cash for the state over time.
"They are reasonable issues to bring up" now, he said.
Lawmakers are making little progress in those negotiations. Legislators did not meet their June 15 constitutional deadline for passing a budget, and they are saying publicly that a spending plan is unlikely to be in place by the July 1 start of the fiscal year.
The state will run out of cash in September, according to the state treasurer, and finance officials say that borrowing to remain solvent will be extremely tough without a budget in place by July. Securing a loan takes time, and lenders look for an enacted budget as assurance that the state will have enough cash to repay them.
Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for as much as $11.5 billion in new taxes -- though they have not specified what they want to tax.
Republicans say cuts in government services and programs are the way to go -- though they, too, mostly demur when it comes to specifics.
Republicans have made clear, however, that relaxing the environmental and labor laws would put them in more of a mood to compromise. That position has drawn a sharp rebuke from Democrats and activists.
"Using a fiscal crisis to delay and roll back protections for Californians is just wrong," said Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).
Sierra Club lobbyist Bill Magavern called the GOP lawmakers "a dwindling minority trying to exploit the limited leverage they have."
Environmentalists are particularly outraged by the Republican call for a delay in the curbs on greenhouse emissions.
The global warming measure is one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proudest accomplishments. It has landed the governor, himself a Republican, on the covers of magazines around the world.
State officials are drafting rules for implementing the emissions caps, which are scheduled to take effect in January 2010. GOP legislators say complying with the rules will be costly for businesses at a time when they already are reeling from the poor economy and higher oil prices.
They want the governor to exercise a provision in the law that allows him to postpone implementation by declaring that it would cause the state "significant economic harm."
"We've got a major downturn in the economy," said Dave Cogdill of Modesto, leader of the state Senate's Republicans. "We're trying to convince the governor to give us more time on this."
Republicans are making the same case for new rules requiring retrofitting of diesel engines on trucks, tractors and heavy construction equipment. The engines are a leading source of pollution and have been singled out by scientists as a cause of thousands of premature deaths and hospital admissions for respiratory problems in California each year.
Supporters of the laws say that the sickness they will prevent and the boost they will give to "green" technologies promise to be far more helpful to California's economy than a delay in their implementation.
Schwarzenegger has said through aides that he does not wish to postpone environmental regulations and won't let the budget situation sidetrack his long-term goals. But he also says nothing is off the table.
"We have open doors where everything is on the table," Schwarzenegger said in a speech last month to the California Peace Officers Assn. "I don't want to go and say to anything, 'No.' "
Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor is interested, for example, in working with Republicans on a relaxation of workplace rules that dictate when employees must be granted lunch breaks.
The governor, an ally of the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, is sympathetic to complaints from business owners that some workplace rules cost them money without benefiting employees.
The example most often cited comes from restaurant owners who say they must give their workers breaks at particular times, even if it is in the middle of the busiest shift, when many would rather be working tables to collect tips.
The Legislature must sign off on changes to such laws, something Democrats say they have no intention of doing. Their labor allies say budget season is a cynical time to raise the issue.
"If these were viable policy proposals, they would pass on their own merits," said Emily Clayton, policy coordinator with the California Labor Federation.
Republicans, she said, "are trying to hold the budget negotiations hostage."