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Openness on budget decisions remains elusive

The Assembly speaker promised that the spending plan wouldn't be written in private. But the break in the long impasse did indeed happen behind closed doors.

October 06, 2010|By Shane Goldmacher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — The new Assembly speaker's promise was unequivocal: Decisions about how billions upon billions of California taxpayer dollars are spent would no longer be made in private meetings or in the middle of the night.

"The budget will not be written behind closed doors," Speaker John Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, pledged in news conferences, on his website and even in his inaugural speech in March. Lawmakers applauded heartily.

But late Friday evening, more than an hour after the Capitol had been shut to the public, Pérez and other legislative leaders emerged from a five-hour, closed-door negotiation session to declare that they had brokered a budget deal.

They released no details. Pérez did not say a word.

A week earlier, top lawmakers and Schwarzenegger had huddled hundreds of miles from the Capitol — meeting in the governor's Santa Monica offices because he had a severe cold. There, they announced a "framework" but scurried from the complex through a side exit and underground parking lot, avoiding questions.

John Vigna, a Pérez spokesman, defended this year's budget-writing procedures, citing more than 100 hearings and forums the speaker held across the state in the spring and summer, and legislative hearings on a series of tax and budget proposals, some of which were then scrapped or revised. By contrast, some budget bills have been voted on in recent years while they were still warm from the copying machine.

"This budget is the culmination of our commitment to openness and transparency in the process," Pérez said in a statement last weekend.

But few public hearings have been held for months on the overdue spending plan — now nearly 100 days tardy and the latest in California history. The legislative rank and file departed for recess as negotiations were occurring almost exclusively in the Capitol's back rooms.

Now that the spending plan has been packaged in private, the leaders have promised a one-day hearing Wednesday before a full vote of the Legislature on Thursday.

"One day is not a hearing," Steve Frank, a conservative activist in Simi Valley, wrote in an e-mail newsletter. "You know politicians are afraid of backlash when they keep the details of a bill secret," he wrote in another.

Pérez had said private talks were to be reserved for "the few rough edges that still need to be sanded out." But the topics tackled in private this year include how much to spend on education, what taxes to raise, how deeply to cut into the social safety net and an overhaul of the state's pension system.

California's budget was not always negotiated in the shadows. A decade or two ago, spending plans were shaped by months of painstaking committee work, public input and contentious debate. But as the fiscal shortfalls and partisan divide in Sacramento have widened, the shroud of secrecy has grown.

"We used to force members to come out from hiding and declare themselves, whether they're for or against something," said Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), who served in the Legislature, before term limits, in the 1980s.

Calderon, who is part of Pérez's Assembly leadership team, said the speaker is less secretive than his recent predecessors. He said hammering out the spending plan in public committee rooms instead of back rooms is the best way to hold lawmakers more accountable and "move members [of the Legislature] off their philosophical pedestals" and toward compromise.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Denise Ducheny (D- San Diego) recalled that last year, GOP legislators used closed-door talks to leverage Democrats to approve sweeping corporate tax breaks and to rewrite election laws in exchange for temporary tax hikes.

"I understand the fear people have," she said, noting that her panel has not met since early August to consider this year's spending plan. It contains a trio of permanent corporate tax breaks, for the cable television and software industry, one timber company and businesses that underreport their taxes, lawmakers have said.

"It's the leveraging … that's become very troublesome," Ducheny said.

A measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, Proposition 25, would eliminate the two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget and, proponents say, the need for hidden wrangling.

As this year's impasse dragged on, there was largely an information blackout. Pressed for details or status updates on what proposals were being considered, Pérez often offered terse answers or none.

"Those are the exact kind of things you can't discuss in public," he said at a July news conference. "That's what makes them evaporate."

Unpopular budget proposals — and with a nearly 20% deficit, almost every proposal is unpopular — come under attack from powerful special interests once they are public.

"The two parties have such different views as to the roles of government it's nearly impossible to reconcile those," said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore), a member of the budget committee.

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