Notebook: Budget Blues, Campaign Trash Talk

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As the week comes to a close, two of the state's dominant political stories -- the ongoing budget saga and the race for governor -- both seemed to lurch into a new gear. One low, the other high. One more cautious, the other more brash.

And for both, the new gear leaves the rest of us in a slightly uncomfortable place.

Budget +57: Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves, shall we?

At the conclusion of this afternoon's short meeting between all four legislative leaders and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, you couldn't help but check the calendar. After all, the comments made by the legislators would have been entirely appropriate if this was June... but not August.

A sampling...

Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth: "We essentially started laying out the parameters."

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg: "Everybody's motivated to try to find the sweet spots here. The positions are well known, but I'd say it was a positive conversation."

Assembly GOP Leader Martin Garrick: "We had a meeting. We'll be meeting again soon."

Given those kinds of reactions, you can't blame those of us who started to wonder whether we'll still be here a month from now, awaiting some kind of compromise on erasing the state's $19 billion budget problem. Barring a modern miracle, the state is poised to head into the month of September for just the fourth time in history without a spending plan in place.

Yes, the positions/parameters are indeed well known. Spending cuts, cash from the feds, a few gimmicks on one side; smaller spending cuts, cash from the feds, a few gimmicks, and a tax increase on the other. And that's largely where things have been -- not just since the spring, but as far back as January when Schwarzenegger unveiled his first budget proposal.

Given the flare-up of nasty rhetoric earlier this week, the leaders seemed to speak in more measured tones at week's end was more measured, though no less adamant. "To cut beyond what is necessary, we don't think that's good for people, we don't think that's good for the economy," said Senator Steinberg. "We've been very consistent."

And a few minutes later, a similar resolve from Senator Hollingsworth. "They want to fill [the deficit] with unsustainable levels of spending and massive tax increases," he said, "and that's where we are."

While it's unwise, at this point, to try to predict the key to breaking the logjam, there's a relatively strong sense among several budget watchers that the ultimate battle is going to be pension reform versus taxes. That's not to say that other issues (systemic budget reform, the acceptable level of education spending, borrowing, etc.) are not important. But for months, the governor has circled some sort of change to the long-term costs of public employee pensions as a big deal... and for Democrats, a similar focus has been on the need for at least some amount of new tax revenue to fill the hole. Keep your eye on these two issues, and how they are talked about in the days and (possibly) weeks to come.

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue."

That was Sean Connery's great line in The Untouchables and, hey, it seems to work just fine for the ever-so-escalating battle between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman.

The tone and tenor of the gubernatorial campaign seems to have quickly, and dramatically, turned ugly. From the candidate campaigns, to outside groups, even fights between politicos and the press, this race seems to be getting awfully intense... just in time for the traditional Labor Day kickoff to election season.

Thursday was a particularly nasty day. The two most notable examples: the large rally staged on the steps of the Capitol by the California Nurses Association and the new anti-Brown TV advertisement launched by Whitman.

The rally, covered with a thin veneer of celebrating history (the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage in the United States), was actually a pointed assault on Whitman by the nurses' union. And while scores of women arrived in Sacramento in their best outfits from the past, their message was decidedly modern and to the point.

"We're here to celebrate the suffragettes and to expose a hypocrite who didn't bother to vote," said CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The nurses also took to the internet to make their case with the video below:

Whitman reportedly dismissed the day's event as ginned up by "union bosses" trying to "distract" from the issues at hand. Of course, the GOP nominee's own campaign was also throwing punches today, with a new political ad criticizing Jerry Brown for the times he used an official state airplane while attorney general.

Brown's spokesman, Sterling Clifford, said the trips were justifiable, and fired back in an email this afternoon at the GOP contender's past flights onboard a plane owned by eBay: "If anyone has some tough questions to answer on the issue of private planes, it’s Meg Whitman."

There was a lot of surrogate sniping today, it seemed. Take this example from the Twitter accounts of two veteran politicos, Whitman senior adviser Rob Stutzman and Roger Salazar, a top adviser to one of the leading independent anti-Whitman/pro-Brown union committees:

1:17 pm @RobStutzman @jerrybrown2010 has a serious problem with telling the truth...
2:20pm @RogerSalazar Said the Meg-pot to the kettle... Sorry @RobStutzman it's Meg who has a serious problem with telling the truth.
2:45pm @RobStutzman @RogerSalazar you agree Jodie Evans has "nothing to do with Code Pink?"
2:56pm @RogerSalazar @RobStutzman you agree that's a lame attempt to distract from Meg's last 3 years at eBay, when stock dropped 43% while her pay went up x5
3:35pm @RobStutzman @RogerSalazar what's that have to do with being anti-American and anti-Israel?
4:05pm @RogerSalazar @RobStuzman You're right. Ripping off your shareholders and your customers is about as American as it gets.

The beginning of that exchange was about a Brown fundraiser which Republicans have seized on as being thrown by Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans. But as you can see above, it kept going from there.

Twitter also was the scene of Team Whitman's pushing of an announcement by Rasmussen Reports that their new poll found Whitman with a new eight point lead over Brown, 48%-40%. This morning, the candidate's top strategist Mike Murphy took aim at the political news and commentary site Calbuzz by tweeting: "Jerry's cheerleaders at Calbuzz will have a howling post up attacking the Rasmussen numbers by lunch."

To which Calbuzz co-founder Phil Trounstine later tweeted, "Why bother?"

Admittedly, each of these skirmishes has its own individual origins. But it's not surprising that tensions are running high; the campaign is heading into the heart of the political season and, the poll announced today notwithstanding, the Brown-Whitman race has been neck and neck.

Brown is starting to reemerge on the campaign trail; and Whitman, while still preferring well-controlled campaign events, may be venturing out more into Q&A sessions with the press. There are a lot of personal attacks being launched, but at some point the focus of everyone -- the press included -- is going to have to come back to what the voters really need to know: how will either candidate fix what ails California?

And if Whitman or Brown have any immediate ideas, I know a few incumbent pols at the Capitol who would love to hear them.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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