The Itchy (Budget) Trigger

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And now, the latest developments from the "Clear as Mud" files... everyone who's anyone around the state Capitol wants to know whether California's share of the federal economic stimulus package is large enough to allow some of the less-than-loved budget decisions to be rescinded.

But finding an absolute answer to that question... well, that's what has landed us in the muddy water.

The reason for that lies, in part, with the way the federal money is being handed out. Some is being given to states to essentially use as they see fit; other parts of the aid package have pretty tight strings attached. And yet other sums won't be doled out until after the state's current fiscal plan expires on June 30, 2010.

All of this means there's still a good bit of number crunching -- and disagreement -- over how much of the DC help can be used towards erasing the state budget's $40 billion shortfall.

If at least $10 billion is available for deficit relief, then almost $948 million in budget cuts and another $1.8 billion in tax increases will disappear. In Capitol parlance, the $10 billion in federal aid would allows the cuts and taxes to be "triggered off."

Now, if we can only find consensus on whether the trigger can be pulled.

A new analysis from the California Budget Project, which advocates for low and middle-income residents, says yes. The CBP pegs California's total of the federal stimulus package at $50.7 billion. And CBP's Jean Ross says there is "sufficient flexibility" in how much of that money can be used to get California to the magic $10 billion number.

But they're not high-fiving each other just yet in Governor Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance. The DOF analysis of late February still holds, says spokesman H.D. Palmer. And that analysis says the deficit relief amount is only $8 billion, with the overall package valued at just under $30 billion.

Expect more numbers tomorrow from Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, who will present his take on the federal package to the Assembly Budget Committee.

But the real fun comes next week, when the two men tasked by the Legislature to make the official determination meet. That would be the governor's finance director, Mike Genest, and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

The actual bill says the two jointly have the responsibility of whether to "trigger off" those budget items. What if they disagree on the analysis? Ummm, well, no one really knows.

And if that's not enough intrigue, consider this: the legislation mentioned above refers only to "federal funds" of at least $10 billion, not specifically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at which everyone's looking. Might that mean some additional pots of federal money could be counted?

For now, no one's sure... nor are they willing to venture a guess. But for as much as this is a policy issue, it's got real potential to be a political one, too. After all, powerful constituencies on both the left and right dislike the budget provisions that could be wiped away by a formal declaration that the $10 billion hurdle will be cleared. And we're likely to hear some of those tomorrow, when legislators meet to hear the report from their non-partisan analyst.

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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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