Budget Status Fluid... or Solidifying?

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In these days leading up to Governor Jerry Brown's big deadline for budget action, most of us who spend our time sniffing around the statehouse for something interesting are finding the task pretty tough.

Yes, that means journalists are now less fulfilled than 'first dog' Sutter.

Even so, one seems to get the sense that the ground is shifting; it's just hard to tell whether the movement means stability or free-fall.

All of this, of course, is necessitated by Brown's 2010 campaign promise of voter ratification for any additional tax revenues, and his insistence that said process be complete before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

After weeks of hunkering down here in Sac Town, Brown has gingerly started playing what politicos call the 'outside game,' with public exhortations in Sacramento and Los Angeles over the past few days.

But private negotiations remain underway, and center to those talks is whether at least* four GOP legislators will sign off on a June election where $11 billion in additional tax revenues would be the marquee attraction. This morning, stalwart Republican activist Jon Fleischman penned a lengthy column on his website that reads almost as a last ditch plea to GOP pols to not compromise on the election proposal:

While the public policy reasons for doing everything possible to stop the advance of a tax increase plan are compelling, for Republicans, the political considerations are even more so. If Republicans are going to begin the long climb back towards being a majority party here in California, we first need to be united.

One concern to Fleischman appears to be criticism of the new effort by a majority of Republican legislators to demand a tax cut proposal on any statewide ballot that asks for more taxes. Several high profile GOP pols have not joined that caucus, with some confirming that it's because efforts are underway to see if a deal can be struck with the Guv -- a deal that may swap a tax vote for reforms on issues ranging from public employee pensions to business regulations.

Truth is, though, there's trepidation in both parties about side deals. Take, for example, the currently white hot issue of pension reform. Democrats inside the Capitol say they're willing to consider pension changes, ones that could include a package of proposals vetoed last year by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, including efforts to stop so-called pension "spiking," and to impose some kind of cap on how large annual pension benefits can be.

But will Dems agree to more? Doubtful. One Democrat inside the Capitol said any call for a lowering of benefits for current employees or an overhaul into a 401(k) style plan would likely be a non-starter. Which then begs the question: is that enough... assuming, of course, that a few Republicans are angling for a deal?

Meantime, the fight over Governor Brown's plan to abolish redevelopment agencies doesn't seem to be making much headway -- in fact, it could be on life support. At today's monthly gathering of the Sacramento Press Club, Assembly Speaker John Perez said that time is running out for those seeking an alternative to killing RDAs.

"The realities of the day indicate that there's not yet a viable alternative to elimination," said Perez. It was the Assembly that rejected Brown's RDA elimination during budget hearings, while Senate budgeteers approved the governor's proposal. The speaker also seemed to drive the final nail into the coffin of the most publicized alternative -- one pushed by his cousin, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. That plan would borrow against, or "securitize" redevelopment tax dollars, to help bail out the state in the coming budget year.

"I don't think securitization is the route," he said.

The conventional wisdom remains that budget conferees, which have suspiciously not met of late (private talks, anyone?), will wrap up their work this week -- with a budget proposal heading to the floor of the Senate as soon as next Monday. And then, we'll watch and wait for either the emergence of side deals... or a long, torturous end to what would then be Act I of the 2011 budget drama.

(*To be fair, more than four GOP legislators would have to vote for a budget tax election plan if any Democrats in either house peel off due to the program cuts proposed by Brown.)

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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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