Budget Triage vs. Major Surgery

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It wasn't specifics that reporters learned today in a wide-ranging chat with the leader of the state Senate, but rather a map for the budget debate that lies ahead -- regardless of what happens in the May 19 special election.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's main message was this: if the budget-related ballot measures pass, the remaining deficit is likely manageable. If they don't, it won't be pretty.

"Is it a scare tactic?," said the Democratic leader. "No, it's reality. The numbers are the numbers."

Steinberg was reacting to yesterday's fracas that Governor Schwarzenegger and his campaign team might be unfairly fanning the flames of doom and gloom if the five ballot measures don't pass -- three accounting for about $6 billion in budget solutions for the coming year, one accouting for about $16 billion in tax increases in the near future.

Even if the measures pass, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor is projecting an $8 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"We can triage $8 billion," said Steinberg. "When you get beyond [that], triage is not the word I would use."

Even so, the pro tem said that his staff is working on all kinds of deficit contingencies, including more money from the California Lottery.

Assuming that one of the least popular ballot measures -- Proposition 1C (lottery cash advance) -- were to squeak through, Steinberg made it clear that the plan is not for a $5 billion advance on lottery profits, but actually $10 billion. He says the current thinking is that $10 bil would be spread over two fiscal years. "You could bring the second $5 billion into the [coming] budget year," he said.

Steinberg said that a tax increase will not be the first proposal on the table -- including the controversial 'majority vote' tax idea Democrats pitched late last year.

As for cuts: the Sacramento Democrat rejected additional deep cuts to K-12 schools ("Public education is not the first place I want to look") and hinted interest in additional cuts to corrections ("That system is replete with waste").

But on the notion that another big budget gap can be closed by cuts alone -- a position of many Republicans, Steinberg offered the following sharp assessment of what GOP legislators would do if faced with that option:

"When it comes to the magnitude of cuts that would be necessary to take a 'cut only' approach... most Republicans will run, and run fast."

It's doubtful that comment will spark any conversions of faith among anti-tax legislators, which means -- as you might guess -- there are going to be a lot of long nights inside the state Capitol in the coming weeks and months.

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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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