Reporting from Sacramento — California lawmakers are in no mood to tackle the state's latest deficit before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office next month, even as the governor prepares to declare a fiscal emergency and call a special session of the Legislature on Monday.
The ruling Democrats distrust the Republican governor, who has used his veto pen to make deep cuts in programs they prize, and they don't want to hand him a new opportunity to exercise that power. Moreover, state law allows them 45 days to pass any deficit-cutting legislation in the special session — and by then, Schwarzenegger will be gone and Democrat Jerry Brown will be governor.
"Why would we want to put an amended budget on Schwarzenegger's desk and enable him to veto programs when we only have to wait a very short period of time for Gov. Brown to come in?" said incoming state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), a former Assembly Budget Committee chairwoman. "It would be foolish in the extreme to do that."
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he is "not completely closed off to working" with Schwarzenegger. But a recent state Supreme Court ruling affirming the governor's line-item veto authority — and Schwarzenegger's penchant for cutting back what lawmakers approve — have left him wary.
"My preference, and my caucus' preference, is to start work right away and listen to what the governor has to say — and err on the side of making an agreement with the governor-elect," Steinberg said.
Steinberg and other Democratic leaders have accused Schwarzenegger of breaking handshake agreements on the last two budgets by wielding his veto pen heavily after lawmakers sent him the spending plan.
The nearly $1.5 billion the governor has cut since 2009 includes funding for workers who help abused and neglected children, day care for parents working their way off welfare, domestic-violence shelters, and AIDS treatment and prevention. The reductions were needed to shore up the state's reserve fund, Schwarzenegger said.
"No poor, disabled, sick, elderly person was left unscathed," said Terry Brennand, a top lobbyist for the influential Service Employees International Union, which represents workers in many of the programs that have been cut back. "My guess is Democratic leaders have probably learned their lesson."
Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said any unwillingness on legislators' part to act swiftly in addressing the estimated $6.1-billion shortfall in the current fiscal year would be "irresponsible."
"We can't spend the money we don't have," McLear said.
The budget enacted in October, a record 100 days late, is already out of balance because, among other reasons, some spending is now projected to be higher; rosy predictions of federal funds have not been borne out; and voters approved ballot measures in November that restricted how some of this year's money can be spent.
The state faces a $25.4-billion deficit over the next year and a half, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. But the lame-duck governor has few tools at his disposal for prodding the Legislature to action.
"He's expendable," Assemblyman Jim Beall Jr. (D-San Jose) said in a reference to "The Expendables," a recent movie in which Schwarzenegger made a cameo appearance.
Schwarzenegger has yet to reveal his agenda for the special session, but "you can expect ugly cuts," McLear said.
To many legislators, that sounds like more of the same. They have already rejected the most severe cutbacks the governor proposed, such as the elimination of the state welfare program.
"If he's just going to take the old white papers out of the recycling bin and bring them forward again, that's not very productive," said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills).
Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga said common sense suggests that lawmakers get to work on the deficit immediately. But he said Democrats "always like to procrastinate, hoping something's going to change" for the better.
The 28 new members of the Legislature — nearly a quarter of that body — will be sworn in Monday, the day Schwarzenegger is expected to proclaim the fiscal emergency. They are still hiring staff and digesting the nuts and bolts of the legislative process, and are hardly prepared to decide what to cut from the budget of the nation's most populous state.
Furniture is still strewn about the Capitol corridors as legislators shuffle offices. The state Senate has yet to name its new budget panel chairman.
"People want time to understand what they're voting on, hopefully," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a think tank that advocates for low-income families. "At this point, it's appropriate to wait until the new governor is sworn in."
Two years ago, the freshman class was also immediately thrown into a special session, charged by Schwarzenegger with plugging a multibillion-dollar budget gap. Flurries of bills were introduced and voted on with little time for review.
"That's not a very pleasant memory, to say the least," recalled Blumenfield, who was a member of that class. "And I wouldn't wish it on our new members."