Conference Committee Convenes
Three days before the often-missed June 15 deadline for sending a completed budget to the governor, the Legislature convened the special six-member, two-house conference committee that stitches together the state’s phone-book-and-a-half size spending plan.
It’s a laborious and often-tedious job reconciling the budget prepared by the Senate with that of the Assembly and then turning it into one document. It’s task that won’t be completed within the next three days, let alone three weeks, perhaps three months.
One reason it’s going to take awhile is that both the Assembly budget and the Senate budget are premised on tax increases or in legislative parlance – “revenue enhancements.”
Democrats in both houses have yet to reveal what exactly those tax increases are or what tax loopholes they plan on closing. Nonetheless, the Assembly budget has a hole of $6.4 billion. The Senate’s plan has one of $11.5 billion.
The governor estimates the gap between spending commitments and revenue at over $15 billion of a $103 billion general fund.
Although he has insisted he won’t raise taxes, the GOP governor was surprisingly silent when legislative Democrats unveiled their premised-on-tax-increases pseudo budgets.
Schwarzenegger’s GOP predecessor, Pete Wilson, would have unleashed a torrent of invective, called Democrats to heel and shown his GOP allies he wasn’t caving in.
Schwarzenegger’s silence contributes to the length of time it will take before the conference committee completes its work. The sooner the governor signals a proposal is unacceptable, the sooner Democrats abandon it and try something else.
Republican lawmakers, for their part, say they won’t vote for a tax increase of any flavor. Not no way. Not no how.
And, at the moment, the governor doesn’t hold a lot of sway with Republican legislators so it’s not like he is going to be able to twist the requisite number of arms.
Nor are there the outside factors that used to drive budgets to swifter resolution. Court rulings over the past 15 years have created a situation in which the state can chug right along paying its bills even if there isn’t a budget in place.
Previously, persons on unemployment and persons being cared for under Medi-Cal, the state’s health progam for the poor, weren’t paid or were denied services. Contracts to private vendors went unpaid. IOUs had to be issued.
Long, hot summer is the conventional wisdom.
And whatever solution emerges will be legislatively driven which means the two GOP legislative leaders have the whip hand, as Willie Brown used to say.
Like Brown and former Republican Senate Leader Ken Maddy, the two current GOP leaders — Sen. Dave Cogdill of Fresno and Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis — are both pragmatic and recognize that a final budget will contain new revenue.
Less visible but potentially more significant is the bipartisan congeniality among the budget staffers who advise the legislative leaders. All of them are smart, practical and experienced. They respect one another and try to make sure each caucus finds “wins” that will ultimately lead to enough votes for a compromise.
Traditionally, a conference committee wouldn’t be having its first meeting on June 12, it would be having one of its last meetings. The custom was to start the process in May after the governor’s presentation of his revised budget plan early in the month.
Thursday’s first meeting lurched wearily along with the four Democrats and two Republicans of both houses agreeing on only a handful of issues, leaving far more for later resolution.
Assemblyman John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat, and Sen. Denise Ducheny, a San Diego Democrat, urged the numerous staffers — some from the administration, others from the Legislative Analyst’s Office — to reference the page number of the budget book the committee works off of when discussing an issue.
Dan Carson, who will become one of the top deputies in the Leg Analyst’s Office this fall when Hadley Johnson retires, presented a plan by the analyst on giving the court system tools more flexibility in return for the state reaching in and using some of the court’s revenue to balance the budget.
That item was put over.
After courts, the committee turned to the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, which includes Caltrans and the Department of Motor Vehicles. As the committee began its deliberations, the staffers who focused on the court system stood up and were replaced on the dais by the business analysts.
“A lot of shifted characters,” Ducheny noted.
The administration needed more job slots to implement a bill authored by GOP Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga having to do with global warming.
Couldn’t the administration implement the law with existing resources? The committee wondered.
“Greenhouse gas emissions is whole new ballgame,” said the representative of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance.
Then the committee took a break until 5 pm.
“Now’s your chance,” Ducheny said to the staff and other lawmakers. “Briefing. Food. Water.”
Filed under: Budget and Economy
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