Budget Borrowing, Or Not?

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[see below for update]

BUDGET DAY 50 -- Welcome to the newest saga in the budget drama of 2008: will the budget impasse be resolved with borrowing big bucks earmarked by voters for other government services, and are legislative Republicans leading the charge?

In fairness, this isn't actually a new topic; rather, it's newly prominent... after Governor Schwarzenegger called out his fellow Republicans yesterday at the end of yet another unsuccessful budget meeting.

At issue: the possibility of borrowing a few billion dollars from money set aside for everything from local government (through 2004's Proposition 1A) and transporation (through 2002's Proposition 42 and 2006's Proposition 1A) to early childhood programs (through 1998's Proposition 10 tobacco tax) and even money for mental health programs (2004's Proposition 63).

While there's not enough money in these accounts to completely close the budget gap, it's believed that these bucks, plus spending cuts and... well, some good old-fashioned budget gimmicks... could probably get the state at, or near, closing the $15 billion deficit.

But the voter-approved initiatives require the money to be paid back sooner rather than later, sometimes with interest. In other words... it would be a one-time solution that would probably add to fiscal headaches in years to come.

Schwarzenegger's accusation yesterday that it's Republicans pushing this as a solution left the leaders of both GOP legislative caucuses angry.

But it's been mainly Republicans who have expressed public willingness to consider such a plan; Democrats have pretty consistently shot down such talk when it's surfaced the last few weeks.

One interview in particular with reporters that immediately stuck in the craw of local government folks and others (and I know, because a portion of it aired in a story of mine the next day and the phone started ringing just after our newscast) was given by Senate GOP Leader Dave Cogdill two weeks ago today.

Cogdill didn't necessarily say that he wanted to borrow the money, but acknowledged such action as a way out of the jam.

His unedited comments, first to the idea of a tax hike, and then to the issue of borrowing, can be heard below.

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In a written statement released yesterday after the governor's public dressing down of Republicans, Cogdill tried to make the point that such borrowing would only happen if Democrats refused to cede any ground off their program priorities.

"If Democrats want to increase spending," Cogdill's statement reads, "they are going to have to either raise taxes or borrow money."

In other words, is it Democrats demanding certain spending... or Republicans rejecting certain revenues? Such ponderances lead to the same kind of brain freeze as a good milkshake.

One thing seems certain: should such borrowing be the ultimate solution to this standoff, it will probably be impossible to ever figure out just whose fingerprints are on it.

[update 2:38pm Schwarzenegger, in a news conference laying out a new budget proposal, seemed to close the door on the borrowing plan, but only after a little prodding from my follow-up question. His final comments on the suggestion: "It is not a wise idea, and I will not do that, no."]

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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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