State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, confers with Sens.… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — Facing a Wednesday deadline for passing a budget or forfeiting pay, Democrats in the Legislature are quietly drafting a spending plan they could pass without the GOP votes needed for tax increases or extensions.
The alternative plan would keep paychecks coming even though talks between Gov. Jerry Brown and Republicans have snagged on the issue of taxes.
"We will have a budget," said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
Barankin and others close to the process declined to provide details. But a fallback blueprint would almost certainly rely on accounting moves and other measures that would merely paper over the state's remaining $10-billion shortfall: Democrats, who have sharply cut back many programs already, have little appetite for further reductions.
Barankin acknowledged that any plan written without a renewal of some tax increases or more drastic cuts would not fully restore the state's financial health.
"There's no way to solve our long-term fiscal problems without [taxes]," Barankin said, and "Republicans are simply unwilling or incapable of supporting a budget that includes [more] revenue."
Brown has campaigned against smoke-and-mirrors budgeting for months, vowing to veto any gimmick-laden spending plan. At a Monday news conference, however, the governor spoke less definitively, saying he would take a "hard look" at such a proposal.
Asked what had changed, he said dryly, "I just don't give you all my strategies before I implement them."
Some see the paycheck threat as an undercurrent pulling on discussions in the Capitol. Lawmakers have certainly taken notice.
"I guarantee my wife doesn't like that any more than any other spouses out there," Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga said during a floor debate last week. Still, he reiterated that he remains opposed to Brown's budget.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) said that is the problem with docking lawmakers' pay: "It won't change the votes."
But it has changed the tenor of discussions.
"What did we do last year, some ridiculous 100 days late?" Assembly minority leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said, recalling the 2010 budget stalemate that dragged into October. "I'm relatively certain we won't see that this time."
Democrats said they do not want to squander the chance to write an on-time budget — it would be the second in 25 years — in the first year that voters have given them the power to pass a spending plan with a simple majority rather than the previously required two-thirds vote.
"It would be a dereliction of duty for us not to think about what an alternative budget would be," said Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).
Some cynics have noted that the docking provision of the new voter-approved law requires only that the Legislature pass a plan by June 15 in order to be paid — even if it's one Brown vetoes.
Negotiations with Republicans, meanwhile, appear to have veered off course in recent days.
Late Sunday, Brown posted a YouTube video in which he said he was "perplexed" by GOP resistance to an extension of some higher taxes until a public referendum on the levies could be held in the fall. On Monday, he said his plan "can't work" otherwise, and he tried to increase the pressure on Republicans by parading a bipartisan group of business, labor and public safety officials before reporters to speak in support of it.
Within hours of that event, four Republican state senators who have been engaged in budget talks issued a statement lobbing blame at the governor. They accused Brown of breaking his campaign pledge to seek voter approval before imposing any taxes.
Brown asked lawmakers in January to schedule a tax election in June, before the budget deadline, but Republicans balked. Now, the governor says, California needs the taxes first, to bridge the gap between the July 1 start of the new budget year and a referendum in the fall.
Republicans have said they would support an election, but not a "bridge" tax, and only in exchange for changes in public pensions, new state spending limits and an easing of regulatory policies.
The Republicans attached a six-page list to their statement detailing those demands. The last time GOP lawmakers released such a document, in March, talks collapsed completely within days.