It's All About The Benjamins

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The big finish to the 2009 Deficit Drama Part Two is on the way, a $25 billion cornucopia of lousy choices, tough decisions, and general gloominess about the state's deficit problems.

So let's see where things stand.

For starters, the 48 hours that have passed since the deal was announced by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have seen what might be the most unified reaction you'll ever see in California budget politics: a consensus thumbing of the nose at the package of cuts, borrowing, revenue projects, prayers, etc.

Any number of powerful groups are firing shots at the proposal, but one wonders whether the noise combines to a dull roar that just makes it that much easier for lawmakers to tune it out, hold their noses, and do the deed.

After getting an early look at the draft floor report from the Assembly, a few themes and tidbits stand out.

That report pegs the actual deficit at $23.1 billion, the solutions package at $24 billion, and the reserve at $900 million. The plan scales back 2009-2010 general fund spending to about $84.1 billion, down from almost $103 billion in 2007-2008 (using data from the Legislative Analyst's Office).

It's interesting to note that more than half of the entire proposal's solutions come from just two sectors: education and local goverment. Public schools and higher education, combined, take an $8.5 billion hit, while local governments take about a $4 billion hit assuming that portion of the plan survives in the courts.

The deficit deal has its symbolic gestures -- most notably, the elimination of a few boards and commissions that weren't going to be saved in the midst of an economic meltdown. While the draft report doesn't mention the always mentioned Integrated Waste Management Board, staffers made it clear that this one was toast from the get-go.

Of course, some of this shuffling seems especially dubious in the savings department. Example: scrap the existing Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair and the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation and instead create the... wait for it... Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation.

Ahh, much better.

Now to more noticeable items. School years may get shorter by five days under this deal for three years in a row; college classes may be harder to get; public health immunizations will not be as available; individuals on SSI/SSP will get $5 less a month; 50 state parks will close; courthouses will close one day a month; local airport grants will be suspended.

And then there are the many other changes reported on often these past few days to welfare assistance, the state's offshore oil drilling, the prison system, and more.

The 'Glass Half Full' folks will focus on the fact that many core services were not entirely wiped out, or that the tax burden for average Californians didn't rise. On the former item, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, appearing on our public affairs show Forum this morning, found a new turn on the governor's favorite quip of late when asked about the many gimmicks in this budget (items he politely called "iffy").

"If we are kicking the can down the road a little bit," he said of the questionable proposals, "it's better than kicking people out on the street."

But again, this doesn't seem to be the end of the hard decisions. And legislative Democrats may have decided that they've now gone as far as they're going to go on spending cuts. Again, a comment from Steinberg this morning: "We can't cut anymore. Enough is enough."

The only big flash point since Monday night's announcement seems to have been squelched by a decision that few insiders saw as surprising. Once it became clear that a big fracas was in the works over specific plans to reduce the prison population -- and thus help save a total of $1.2 billion -- Democrats agreed to delay the debate on the policy changes until August, thus only putting forward a plan this week to pencil in the savings as 'unallocated.'

And so the only real suspense now, barring any bombshells (never count that out), is how many votes each of the 28 bills will receive, whether the votes will be truly bipartisan and not the bare minimum for passage, how many Democrats stray from the leadership directive and oppose items... and so on. The political junkies among us may be chattering about that, but for the public... it's all about the 'Benjamins' and what they pay for in government. And probably for good reason.

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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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