Two Months, But Who's Counting?

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For weeks, Governor Schwarzenegger has barnstormed the state trying to drum up support for his effort to reform the annual process that governs the state budget. But back here in Sacramento, he may soon run short on time for a substantive debate over just how to do that.

The governor's current thoughts on budget reform were laid out in his State of the State speech in January. But changing the budget process requires that voters first amend the state constitution. And before they can do that, there needs to be legislation introduced... which hasn't happened.

And the clock is ticking.

A check of state election law and some quick math courtesy of elections officials shows that any proposal for the November 4 ballot is supposed to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor no later than Thursday, June 26.

That's just about two months if you're keeping track at home.

At this morning's weekly briefing for the press corps, Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said that a formal budget reform proposal is immiment. "Time is on our side," he said, while also emphasizing that the governor wants the issue resolved this year.

And McLear said that a legislator has agreed to carry the bill, but he declined to identify the legislator. This afternoon, one well-placed legislative staffer said that negotiations over what the budget reform plan will look like are actually still ongoing... which makes the administration's pronouncements seem a tad optimistic.

To be fair, the sketch laid out by the governor in January does include some specifics for policy wonks to chew on-- including the squirreling away of excess revenues in good years, and automatic cuts when a deficit is projected and the Legislature fails to act.

But there are far more questions about how it would actually work. And one only has to turn the clock back to 2005 to see how the fine print of Proposition 76, Schwarzenegger's most recent budget reform plan, spelled its doom. In particular that time, education advocates decried the measure's ability to slash funding for public schools.

And as you can hear below, in a piece I filed for The California Report a few weeks ago, some Democrats are also leery of giving the executive branch new powers over the budget... no matter how it's designed.

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As Capitol watchers might guess, June 26 is nowhere near a hard and fast deadline. Lawmakers are notorious for going into extra innings when it comes to getting something on the ballot... even sometimes agreeing to pay for supplemental ballot pamphlets long after they've missed the printing deadlines.

But it seems folly to suggest that there's lots of time left for a major change in budget governance in 2008. And the delay stands in stark contrast to the governor's message in dozens of local forums in recent weeks that there's real "urgency" to the issue.

And the later things get officially started on the issue here at the Capitol, the more likely that budget reform will get folded in with negotiations over the current budget morass.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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