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California budget talks marked by secrecy

Schwarzenegger and the top two legislative leaders of both parties have locked the doors on their work to solve the fiscal crisis, and that rubs some colleagues and constituents the wrong way.

February 11, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Under the gilded dome of the state Capitol, the Cone of Silence has descended. A veil has been drawn. Secrecy has prevailed as the wizards have labored behind the green curtain to find a way out of California's $42-billion budget hole.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the top four legislative leaders have again been meeting behind closed doors as California teeters at the brink of fiscal insolvency. Rank-and-file lawmakers, special interest groups and the public have been shut out of the bargaining process. There have been no public hearings, no chance for input -- and that has some folks riled.

They worry about not having time to properly scrutinize -- and help shape -- a blueprint expected to chart California's fiscal course until the middle of 2010.

"It's an abuse of power," said state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), who has not been involved in the negotiations. "To have it done in secret, and deliberately so, is unacceptable."

If not for the unprecedented collapse of the budget this year, top leaders wouldn't even be meeting. The fiscal tango would hardly have begun.

But the world financial crisis has hit California hard. Tax revenue is down precipitously, and the 2008-09 budget needs a mid-course correction to keep the state solvent. So Schwarzenegger and company kick-started anew the Big Five, the meetings of the governor and top legislative leaders from both political parties.

"A virtually impenetrable cone of silence has descended upon the Capitol," said Jean Ross on her daily blog for the nonpartisan California Budget Project. She said the level of furtiveness that reached a new high during last summer's long budget stalemate "has been far surpassed."

Ross complained that there would be no public hearings and no chance for input "on major decisions that will shape California for years, if not decades, to come."

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) conceded that this "certainly is not the preferred way to pass a budget."

But, he said, "extraordinary times and extraordinary circumstances demand an extraordinary approach."

Steinberg said it's difficult to get the required two-thirds vote to pass a budget "with all of the outside interests beating down on members."

He and the others are willing to absorb criticism, he said, "if, in the end, we can get the people's business done -- and done responsibly."

The stakes are unusually high. The governor and top lawmakers have been attempting to craft both a solution to the current budget imbalance and details of the fiscal 2009-10 budget. By doing so in secret, they have avoided the slog of hearings, lobbying and arm twisting that normally goes on for months.

"There's no precedent for this," said A.G. Block, director of the University of California's public affairs journalism program in Sacramento. "They're short-circuiting the normal process. It seems like the Big 5 are doing the work of everyone."

Players on all sides are outraged.

Labor unions have threatened to launch recall campaigns against lawmakers who turn against them on pet issues. They cried foul after hearing one of the few leaks that trickled from the negotiations: that the governor's legislative secretary, former restaurant industry lobbyist Michael Prosio, was pushing to roll back workplace laws.

Republican blogger Jon Fleischman called for the censure of any Republican who votes for higher taxes. And the talk radio duo of John and Ken at KFI-AM (640) in Los Angeles launched a campaign to keep GOP legislators from waffling on their anti-tax pledges.

State leaders have been shifting budget negotiations into back rooms for several decades. The normal slate of springtime subcommittee hearings these days are largely written off by Capitol denizens as a sham.

In recent years, California's budgets have borne little resemblance to the initial spending plans issued by legislative committees. Early drafts often don't even attempt to balance the books, leaving the hard choices to be made in locked boardrooms and sprung just hours before floor votes.

A few vocal lawmakers have railed against this process. While in the state Legislature, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) launched tirades condemning the lack of transparency, arguing that compromises should be hammered out in public committee rooms.

Some longtime watchdogs say the extra secrecy during the current crisis has been almost unavoidable. Time is of the essence, they say, and the devil is in the details.

Special interests, which hold great sway over lawmakers who depend on their cash for campaigns, can ratchet up the pressure and undercut any chance that the requisite votes will be there when the spending plan comes to a vote.

"I'm willing to give them a little more slack than usual," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, in Los Angeles. "The final result is what's important. We don't need to know all the machinations behind the scenes."

Peter Scheer, California First Amendment Coalition executive director, said negotiations in private are a staple of the American republic. From the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to the civil rights laws of the 1960s, closed-door bargaining has been part of the political process.

"We have no choice during periods of crisis but to deviate at least somewhat from the ideal world of the sun shining brightly on the legislative process," Scheer said.

"I say this with great sadness. It shouldn't be this way," he added. "But we have a crisis. We've driven up to a cliff."

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Evan Halper contributed to this report.

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