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GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Budget fight assures mutual destruction

September 18, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — In California's Capitol, they're verging on political nuclear war. The ultimate weapons are cranked and aimed.

The old Cold War acronym MAD comes to mind: mutually assured destruction.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity continues to plummet. Only 38% of voters approve of his job performance and 52% disapprove, the nonpartisan Field Poll reported Tuesday.

But esteem for the Legislature is absolutely pathetic. It's at a record low, based on 25 years of Field polling: 15% approval; 73% disapproval.

The public is paying attention: 82% of voters think it's a "very serious problem" that the governor and Legislature are "taking so long to reach an agreement" on the budget. It's now 80 days late.

So you'd think the last thing these politicians would want is to keep budget-brawling -- showcasing ineptitude and stiffing private suppliers, community colleges, nursing homes and healthcare centers for the poor, many of them struggling to keep their doors open. The state can't pay them until a budget is signed.

The Legislature wised up a week ago, recognizing reality:

* Schwarzenegger arguably is the weakest California governor since at least the ancient era before World War II. His relationship with fellow Republicans in the Legislature is abysmal. He couldn't generate any GOP support for his last budget proposal, which relied on a one-cent sales tax increase for three years.

* This Legislature is the most polarized -- the most budget-gridlocked -- since, well, probably ever. Republicans flat out won't raise taxes, at least easily identifiable taxes such as income and sales. Democrats have cut as deeply as they're going to into education and social services.

Given that intractable situation, as I recently wrote, the most responsible move was to act irresponsibly because they were incapable of passing an honestly balanced budget.

So early Tuesday morning legislators passed a bipartisan "get-out-of-town," $106-billion general fund budget with accounting gimmicks, assorted borrowing and camouflaged tax hikes that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) admitted was "ugly."

And a few hours later the governor declared war on the Legislature, announcing he would veto the budget because it "punishes taxpayers, pushes the problem into next year and includes fake budget reform."

That wouldn't be merely unprecedented -- apparently no California governor ever has vetoed an entire budget -- it would be a sign of desperation and failure.

Looked at more positively, it also could be a sign of new backbone, although the governor is showing it very late in the battle. Schwarzenegger waited months before publicly advocating a tax increase that he was touting privately.

The Legislature almost certainly would override a veto with the same two-thirds majority vote it used to pass the sorry budget. Lawmakers are sick of the fight and feel no loyalty toward the governor. Both Republican leaders -- Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Assemblyman Michael Villines of Clovis -- have publicly announced that they'll vote for the override.

Overrides of any bills are humiliating and extremely rare -- the last one was 29 years ago when Jerry Brown was governor -- and generally are regarded as symptoms of gubernatorial weakness.

Schwarzenegger has vowed to retaliate by vetoing "hundreds of bills" passed by the Legislature in the closing days of its session, measures close to many lawmakers' hearts.

At that point, the Capitol would be heading into nuclear winter.

In January, the governor could get the silent treatment at his annual State of the State address in the Assembly chamber, if he's invited at all. His appointments could be denied confirmation by the Senate. Forget about progress on water works, healthcare or education. The verbal venom alone would be poisonous to poll ratings.

Of course, maybe the legislators would take it all in stride. Return in January in a jolly, forgiving mood. They got the governor's message. He won't be pushed around. And now they can all work together again. Maybe. Not likely.

And what's this all about? Besides the governor trying to escape any blame for a bad budget and position himself standing up to an unpopular Legislature?

Officially, it's not about much. It's about a "rainy day" fund created to capture surplus tax revenue in boom times and hold it until needed when the economy goes bust.

The state already has a rainy day fund. The Legislature agreed to increase it significantly and to transfer into the pot unexpected "April surprise" revenue exceeding 5%. The dispute is over when and how the money can be extracted from the fund. At least, that was the dispute.

Democrats agreed Wednesday to Schwarzenegger's demand that the fund be tapped only when the state is collecting insufficient money to pay for current services, according to one source familiar with the negotiations. But then Schwarzenegger -- seemingly itching for a fight -- asked for more.

The source said the governor now also insists on scrubbing the Legislature's proposed 10% increase in income tax withholding, an item penciled in by budget-writers for $1.6 billion. Fine, but where does he expect to find that extra $1.6 billion needed to close a $15-billion deficit?

The governor and legislative leaders plan to meet today for further truce talks.

Stop the madness. There's nothing currently at stake that's worth a mushroom cloud over the Capitol -- and a fallout that kills small businesses and care centers being stiffed by the state.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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