Budget Debate: Taking the Fun Out of Dysfunction

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There's a common perception inside the ornate walls of the Capitol that the public hasn't ever really been dialed in to the impending doom that is the state budget. They don't seem to feel a sense of urgency, goes the theory.

Well, after today's anti-climatic end of the legislative session, one might be compelled to say to the Legislature: right back at ya.

In the Senate, the late afternoon/early evening session on the Democratic budget plan produced a sizeable source of revenue... for Round Table Pizza. The tradition of legislators getting a taxpayer subsidized dinner for working past normal hours continued, with 36 pizzas stacked up in a hallway just off the Senate floor. At last count, there are 40 senators... which works out to just over 70% of a full pie for each one of them.

Meantime, the floor of the Assembly sounded more like a cocktail party than a legislative chamber. The sound system made it easy enough to hear the impassioned speeches, but there was a lot of inattention by those waiting to vote. Several lawmakers seemed to spend much of the debate surfing websites at the laptops on their desks.

If all of this sounds, well, snarky... perhaps it's because the proposal, debate, and outcome were all ones seen before.

In the end, the Democratic proposal failed to garner enough GOP legislative votes to clear the supermajority hurdle in either house -- although Senate Republicans did vote for some of the spending cuts contained in the package.

However, even if the proposal had somehow made it out of the Legislature and downstairs to the desk of Governor Schwarzenegger, he would have rejected it. At least, that's what he told reporters tonight just after both houses adjourned.

Schwarzenegger said the Democrats didn't put up an economic stimulus package in tandem with the spending cuts and tax increases. "You cannot go and raise taxes without having an economic stimulus package," he said. "It's not fair to business. It's not fair to the people. We've got to go put people to work, and we've got to ease off some of the regulations that makes it tough to do business here in California."

Moments later, incoming Senate pro tem Darrell Steinberg said Schwarzenegger's stimulus ideas still wouldn't have been enough of a sweetener to get any GOP votes on the budget proposal. Plus, he said, there were things in it Dems didn't like. Even so, he said the issue of the economy doesn't solve the state's immediate problems.

The floor debates featured some familiar points: for Democrats, it was the notion that Republicans won't lay out a comprehensive plan to solve the shortfall. For Republicans, it was criticism that the Dem spending cuts were actually worth much less than advertised, and that no one would listen to GOP revenue ideas before moving on to tax increases.

For his part, Schwarzenegger told reporters that legislators had "failed the public" by not getting the job done in this 19 day special session. Likening them to kindergarteners, the governor claimed the session was never taken seriously... a far cry from his usual optimism.

You can hear his critique below.

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And yes, as you could hear, the governor plans to use his voter approved power to declare a fiscal emergency when the new Legislature convenes on Monday. Whether that inspires a sense of urgency, though, remains to be seen.

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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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