Is That Your Final Offer?

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

The 2011 budget saga feels every bit like the dreadful haggling over buying a car, with tactics ranging from the "How much are you looking for in a monthly payment?" to "Show me the invoice" and the ever-popular, "Let me check with my sales manager."

A case could be made either way as to who represents the prospective buyer and who represents the auto dealer. But at some point, there's "take it or leave it" offer for the car. And certainly everyone thinks -- hopes -- we're nearing that moment at the state Capitol.

It looks as though negotiations are either on low heat this state holiday, and no one's confirmed that there were any weekend talks, either, among the most obvious players.

Perhaps that's not surprising, given the Friday night special delivery from Republicans in the state Senate: a blow-by-blow list of policy demands that, until then, had remained private. The GOP senators went one step further, including a set of counteroffers supposedly made by Governor Jerry Brown -- the veracity of which the Guv's team tersely told reporters "cannot be verified without careful examination."

(We'd assume the document has been examined by now, but there's been no rebuttal from the governor's camp.)

Whether that action represented an traditional traditional blowup (a certain Austrian guv called it kabuki) needed to move a deal... or... a real setback remains unclear.

The list wanders from specificity to broad sketches, which makes it hard for anyone to assess whether it reflects what the governor called a "term sheet," or more of a "wish list" which can/will be pared down.

In the category of reasonably specific GOP demands, the list includes ideas on public employee pensions and a temporary cap on spending from the state general fund.

The latter merits a mention, in that calling it "temporary" may only be accurate because it would expire when two budget goals are met: the payoff of general fund debt and the existence of a 10% reserve fund. That budgetary debt is no small thing; included on the list are the 2004 deficit bonds, 2009's local government borrowing (PDF), and an existing (and multi-billion dollar) IOU to public schools. The base year for the cap, upon which expenses would be curtailed to inflation and population growth, would be 2012-13, a year yet fully forecasted by budget experts. Not only is there doubt the state's economic recovery will have fully bloomed by then... but should Brown's five year extension of taxes fail (assuming it gets on the ballot), then the pie will be divided that much more conservatively.

In the "details TBA" category is the GOP list's call for regulatory reform. "Starting Point: Federal OMB model (Blakeslee)," it says, a reference at the end to GOP 5'er Sen. Sam Blakesleee (R-San Luis Obispo). A spokesperson for the senator is checking for details, but a quick online search suggests that the "federal" model may involve the review of all agency regulations by a centralized state entity, which no doubt Republicans would insist view those regs with an eye toward impact on businesses.

GOP lawmakers have also resurrected several proposals scuttled in years past, including an end to teacher seniority-based layoffs and modifications to the state's long-standing environmental review law.

For these, and more, Governor Brown and Democrats would presumably get enough GOP legislative votes to call an election (which is never explicitly said in the document, nor has it been said in public). Making the pill that much more tough to swallow, Republicans are telling Brown that the spending cap and some kind of public employee pension proposal... plus, it seems, Brown's proposed rollback of business tax breaks... all must go on the ballot, but "no measures tied" together.

Translation: taxes can lose while the spending cap and pension change can still win.

Whether Friday night's release of the GOP budget list translates into good PR for Reeps (See, we're not just the party of no!) or bad PR (Look at how many unreasonable demands they're making!) remains to be seen. And it's done nothing to tamp down speculation -- as recently as this morning -- that a deal is actually there for the taking in the next few days, despite the worlds apart feeling of the proposal.

But the negotiations are nearing the point where every car purchase gets: a weariness that sets after hours of dollar-by-dollar debate where everyone weighs the cons of more haggling versus the pros of the guy driving off in a sweet new set of wheels.

Now, let me show you the Blue Book value...

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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