Democrats wanted the power to pass a budget but don’t want to use it

As the Legislature moves closer to voting on a budget largely reflecting Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed spending plan, Democrats are learning that a power they have long sought — to pass a budget with a majority vote — might not be the lever they thought it was going to be.

Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, and thanks to the passage of Proposition 25 last November, they now have the power to pass a budget without Republican votes. With a Democrat in the governor’s office, that should make for easy sailing for a Democrat-driven budget plan. No more partisan stalemates, gridlock and cash shortages that force the state to pay its bills with IOUs.

That was the theory, anyway. In practice, something very different is happening.

Democrats can pass a budget without Republican support. But they cannot pass tax increases. And the Democrats don’t want to use their newfound clout to pass a budget that gets by only on the revenues projected for the coming fiscal year, especially after the expiration of $11 billion in temporary tax increases. That would mean deep cuts in public schools, public safety and just about every other program funded by the state.

As an alternative, Brown has proposed, and Democratic lawmakers have embraced, a two-step plan to getting the budget done.

First, the Legislature would pass what amounts to half a budget, a plan that makes $12 billion in cuts — mostly to health and social service programs — but relies on the extension of those temporary tax increases to prevent even deeper spending reductions. And then the Legislature would place a ballot measure or a series of measures on a June special election ballot and ask the people to extend the temporary taxes and ratify some fund shifts that can happen only with voter approval.

Brown promised during his campaign last year to raise taxes only with voter approval. Even if he wanted to do otherwise, however, he would have a hard time doing so, because almost every Republican in the Legislature has pledged not to vote for a tax increase. But even getting those measures on the ballot so the voters can decide the issue requires a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and the Senate. At least two Republican votes in each house are needed to make that happen.

Most Republicans have also vowed to oppose the governor’s ballot plan. A handful have said they are still open to the idea, and they have been trying to negotiate with Brown to win concessions from him and Democratic lawmakers in exchange for their votes. The Republicans want a spending limit, pension reform and regulatory relief for business, among other things.

But Brown and his Democratic allies have come under intense pressure from interest groups, especially the public employee unions, to oppose any spending limits or changes to the pension system. This has led to a recurrence of the same kind of partisan frustration and name-calling that has marked past budget stalemates, and which Brown promised to avoid.

The governor, for instance, has called Republicans “disloyal to California” for refusing to put his tax plan on the ballot. A handful of Republicans who were negotiating with the governor, meanwhile, threw up their hands earlier this week and said the negotiations were going nowhere because Brown refused to cross his public employee union supporters.

And Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg on Tuesday lashed out at Republicans for not being serious about the negotiations.

“The numbers are very stubborn,” Steinberg told reporters. “And we have to deal with them like adults. What the governor has proposed is fair — half cuts, and let the people decide that the cuts should not be doubled and impact public education and public safety — and we intend to do our jobs. That’s what we were hired to do. The other side needs to do the same.”

From all appearances, the sides remain far apart. Even if the Democratic leaders agree to Republican demands, it will probably take days to hammer out the details and get the legislation passed. And even that might be optimistic.

In other words, Brown’s self-imposed budget deadline of March 10 is about to pass him by. Soon he will be up against even stricter deadlines to get his package on the ballot sometime in June, before the start of the new fiscal year. And if he cannot get the taxes on the ballot, the constitutional deadline of June 15 to pass a budget will soon be looming. And the Democrats will be faced with the cruel dilemma of whether to exercise their power to pass a budget they hate or risk the wrath of voters who might now think they have more reason to hold the majority party accountable for the mess in Sacramento.

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