Budget Talk? Yes. Budget Action? Dunno.

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Getty/Robyn Beck

By the end of this week, we're going to be able to answer two pretty noteworthy questions about the state budget mess: what's Arnold Schwarzenegger's final suggested fix, and what's Jerry Brown's opening gambit?

Those questions are also a clear sign that the first week of the new legislative session will not be what it often is: devoid of news.

The new biennial session of the California Legislature begins at noon tomorrow, when the Assembly and Senate convene and the oath of office is given to new and returning members. The Assembly features 27 fresh faces from around the state and one ex-Senator moving to the lower house, while the Senate welcomes two newcomers and eight ex-assemblymembers.

Normally, that would be about it -- save for the familiar chat about who gets what small or large office, who will get tapped for what committee, etc. But by the time the legislators shake hands with each other after taking the oath of office, they will be receiving a little welcoming gift from the governor's office: a special session on the budget and the formal declaration of a fiscal emergency, the focus of his weekly public address.

Schwarzenegger's actions tomorrow come just 28 days before an "ex" is added to his gubernatorial title, and that's got everyone wondering just what -- if anything -- Democrats in the Legislature will do with his eleventh hour deficit fix. After all, almost every one of the governor's opening budget salvos these past seven years has included spending reductions decried by the legislative majority; and the early signs are this one will be no different.

Democratic staffers said last week that any draconian cuts are likely to be dead on arrival, but also said that it shouldn't be assumed there will be zero action taken during the month of December, in the face of what's currently pegged as a 2010-2011 deficit of $6.1 billion. Even limited budget action by the Legislature would be sufficient to meet the constitutional requirement for addressing a 'fiscal emergency.'

While early action is probably preferable on the gap, there's no corresponding cash flow crisis for state government (in fact, the state sold some short-term notes recently that appear to have the coffers filled for the time being),the kind that's prompted immediate action in the past. Cash issues, plus an even larger deficit, drove the narrative in 2008 when Schwarzenegger called a special budget session.

Schwarzenegger Twitter Photo

The familiar script during the Schwarzenegger era for budget proposals has gone something like this: Guv makes his pitch in Sacramento, Guv then goes on the road promoting his plan. But here again, things may be different... because on Wednesday, the budget watch will shift to the governor-elect.

Jerry Brown's announcement of a "budget briefing" for this coming Wednesday was the first public pronouncement from his team since before Thanksgiving. Brown is inviting legislators and local officials to Sacramento's historic Memorial Auditorium to hear from fiscal experts on what's in store for California in the coming year. There's not been much more detail than that, apparently even for many of those expected to attend. Will Brown structure this like a town hall? A series of speeches? An Oprah-esque conversation? Stay tuned.

But the more important part of the Brown event may be that it kicks off what could be called the 're-education' of the once-and-future-governor on budget matters. As I reported after his November 2 victory, the budget process Brown is now wrestling with is far more complicated than the one he last saw as chief executive in 1982. And given post-election polls that continue to show the voters are sending decidedly mixed fiscal messages (cut spending but don't cut things like schools and social services, even though they cost the most money), Brown may be able to use the process to his political advantage: engage the public in a similar educational process about the state's finances, so that everyone understands the ramifications of the choices that lie ahead.

With California's two highest profile politicians holding events just two days apart on the state's budget woes, will there be unity... or disagreement? Can Schwarzenegger adjust to the quick fade on his spotlight, and can Brown avoid commenting on Schwarzenegger's call for more slashing of state spending?

All of this is sure to make for a fascinating week here in the state capital.

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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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