Budget +100: Night Moves

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Photo: John Myers

Not too far into the marathon Thursday night/Friday morning budget drama at the state Capitol, it became clear that what we were witnessing was not so much a lesson in civics as it was a lesson in relationships.

As in how to win people over... and what happens sometimes when you don't.

The Great Budget Deal of 2010 turned into The Not Really A Deal Budget Deal of 2010 pretty quickly on Thursday afternoon, for a number of reasons.

First, a procedural problem. The 26 separate bills in the budget package were split between the Assembly and Senate, the theory being that each house would approve its half and then swap. Um, no. What happened instead was that the various objections to the bills in each house pretty much prevented anything from moving anywhere.

And the objections were numerous. For much of the night and early morning, a bloc of Senate Democrats blocked the budget trailer bill that suspends the constitutional funding guarantee for schools, Proposition 98. It wasn't much easier in the Assembly, where Dems also balked at the human services trailer bill that cut funding for the state's In-Home Supportive Services Program (IHSS).

Some objections were particularly specific. Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-LA), long a champion of the rights of undocumented immigrants and in his final term in the state Senate, insisted that the transportation trailer bill be amended to outlaw the seizure and forfeiture of vehicles from those cited only for the lack of a license or insurance. Critics have charged that those without legal status often permanently lose their cars in such law enforcement operations because they, more than any group, have no licenses or proofs of insurance.

Cedillo failed to get that amendment -- Republicans were in no mood to approve such a proposal -- and so the Los Angeles Democrat steadfastly refused to vote for the budget plan from then on... relenting only around 5:00 a.m. after a lengthy private meeting of Democrats.

Meantime, Republicans remained unwilling to vote for several parts of the package agreed to by all four legislative leaders and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In particular, both houses had members who balked at the pension reform proposal; at times, the measure became the focus of a game of budget 'chicken.' Until Dems voted for the pension reform (largely a repeal of the 1999 pension modification law), Republicans weren't going to put up votes on other measures... and for Dems, vice versa.

The big break came in a plan devised by Assembly Speaker John Perez and his staff, a way to recreate a classic Sacramento budget move: get one chamber to pass the package and then quickly adjourn... thus forcing the deadlocked chamber to either approve the package or take the full heat for failing to do so. But to do that, the original bill -- requiring a supermajority vote -- had to be crafted into a bill that could be debated in an existing special session and thus passed by a simple majority.

Confused? You're not alone.

And the long day and night drama revealed some classic last-minute deals. First up was SB 848 by Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, which would have exempted online travel sites like Orbitz and Expedia from having to pay full local occupancy tax for rooms customers booked through them. The issue was that the online sites often pay much less for the room than they charge customers -- but locals argue the tax due is based on what the customer pays... and that the online sites are pocketing the extra cash. Several municipalities have already taken the case to court; this would have essentially killed those lawsuits by having the state declare the online operations to be exempt. But after cities, counties, and consumer attorneys put on what one lobbyist called the 'full jihad' behind closed doors, the measure was scrapped.

Not so with budget trailer bill SB 863 -- which joined a $10 million infusion of cash for the cash-starved Williamson Act program with an unusual provision for redevelopment agencies in the Bay Area city of Richmond and in San Diego. The redevelopment provision grants those two agencies extra time and room under the law to collect their share of property taxes. And the San Diego proposal reportedly could be used to help provide cash for a future NFL stadium in downtown San Diego. There was a lot of grumbling, but the proposal moved forward.

Update 8:45 a.m. Well, what a difference a few hours makes... and the focusing of the mind provided by the Assembly's decision to pass the package and adjourn. After long, private (and separate) cajolings of Democrats and Republicans, enough senators on both sides of the aisle either stopped abstaining or changed their earlier 'no' votes so that the package passed.

And it didn't come easy. The final bill, a health care related budget trailer bill, sat in limbo for a very long time until Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) flipped his vote. And the final bills could not be taken up, per Republicans and Schwarzenegger, until a gubernatorial appointee to the California Transportation Commission was confirmed by the Senate -- on this, their last day in session.

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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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