Tuesday, February 17, 2009
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California legislators trudged toward the end of a second day of trying to close a $40-billion hole in the state's budget Sunday, still one vote Republican vote short of approving a package that contains $14.3 billion in tax increases.
State Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria, indicated in an interview with The Sacramento Bee that he was willing to consider casting the decisive vote if he was satisfied with the final version of the tax proposal.
"I'm very concerned with the tax package," said Maldonado, who early Sunday had been quoted as saying he was adamantly opposed to the tax hikes. "We're still working on that. Everything's fluid. I don't like tax increases ... let me just work on the tax issue. I'm working on that. I don't want my state to go off the cliff, OK? I don't want that."
Legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were holding a closed-door meeting Sunday night to seek a way to convince Maldonado to vote for the tax bill.
The bill is part of a massive and intricate package of 28 measures that attempt to close the gap between state revenues and spending over the next 17 months, while stimulating the economy by accelerating some public works projects and giving tax breaks to some businesses.
The key bills in the package, which has been hung up since Saturday, require two-thirds approval of both the Assembly and the state Senate.
That means at least three Republicans have to vote for those elements with the 51 Democrats in the Assembly, and three Republicans would have to do likewise with the 24 Democrats in the state Senate. Most Republican legislators have taken pledges never to raise taxes, and fear doing so could lead to their defeat in GOP primaries.
Even so, legislative leaders had said the three GOP Assembly votes were there. The hang-up was that there were only two Republican senators — Senate GOP leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto, Calif. and Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield, Calif. — willing to vote for all parts of the package.
Another GOP senator, Dave Cox of Fair Oaks, was widely believed to be the 27th vote, but made it clear in the wee hours Sunday morning he would vote no.
"I believe it is counterintuitive to think you can solve this problem by dragging down the economy," Cox said.
The budget-balancing aspect of the package takes a three-pronged approach, with $14.3 billion in temporary tax increases, $15.1 billion in spending cuts and $11.4 billion in borrowing.
The money would cover both the budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30, and the coming budget year that starts July 1.
The economic stimulus part of the package would waive some environmental rules to get public works projects started sooner; give tax credits to small businesses that create new full-time jobs in the next two years, and give tax breaks to television and film productions made in California and to companies that do business in more than one state.
The plan also relies on voter approval of five measures at a May 19 special election.
Voters would be asked to OK borrowing money from two voter-created special funds for mental health and children's health programs; changing constitutional language that covers lottery operations and school financing, and creating a spending cap.
Most of the bills were passed relatively easily by both houses Saturday night and Sunday. But the package is an all-or-nothing proposition, and the lack of one vote on the tax bill put everything on hold.
The impasse had legislative historians scrambling to find any more-or-less continuous session that was as prolonged as this one.
The Assembly was convened about 9 a.m. Saturday, then dismissed until 5 p.m., which turned into 8:30 p.m. The Senate got started about the same time Saturday night. When it became apparent a stalemate had occurred, senators were allowed to return to their offices in the wee hours of Sunday morning, but were restricted to the Capitol.
But in the Assembly, Speaker Karen Bass "locked down" the house, meaning members were restricted to the Assembly Chamber or members' lounge. By 3 a.m., the members' lounge resembled the cabin of a plane on a trans-Pacific flight, with shoes and coats strewn about and lawmakers sprawled over or curled up in chairs.
The lockdown, while rare, was not unprecedented. Former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, kept his charges locked up overnight in July 2007, and legendary Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh locked up the Assembly in 1963. Both of those instances also involved fights over the state budget.
In keeping with legislative tradition on such occasions, the session was dominated mainly by inactivity, though there were moments that evoked thoughts of both Machiavelli and the Marx Brothers:
Late Saturday evening, several reporters accosted Senate Republican leader Cogdill as he was leaving Gov. Schwarzenegger's office. Cogdill immediately put his cell phone to his ear as walked by the gentlemen of the press, and then just as immediately put it away when safely clear.
In a rare showing of bipartisanship, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, ventured out on the Chamber balcony to play catch with a foam rubber football.
The Senate voted for a measure that seeks voter approval of a state spending cap. Senate Democrats wanted to keep the roll call open, to hold the bill hostage until Republicans put up the needed votes for the tax hikes.
But the bill was inadvertently announced as "passed," which triggered 10 minutes of confusion that included "reconsidering" the measure, a verbal roll call that petered out about one-third of the way through, and a second roll call on which it was clear many senators weren't clear at all as to what they were voting for.
"It's been a long day," observed Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, "and in the course of a long day a mistake or two is made."
While there was something in the package for everyone to hate, there were a few things included to ensure that specific members would be happy enough to vote for it.
Sen. Ashburn, for example, was particularly encouraged by a provision jammed into one bill Saturday night — at Ashburn's behest — that would give a state tax credit of up to $10,000 to new home buyers, and thus stimulate the economy.
"This bill is singularly stimulative," Ashburn said in debate before the bills was approved.
"Yeah," loudly remarked an observer in the back of the Senate chamber, "it stimulated him (Ashburn) into voting for the tax increase."
(c) 2009, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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