One for the Record Books

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It took less than six hours for both houses of the Legislature to ratify all of the components of a new state budget and send them to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown.

As Capitol denizens know, that's virtual light speed.

But that's the kind of unusual day that it was, from the ultimate in pro forma debates to the closest thing to fisticuffs anyone's seen in a long time, to the question mark surrounding the $116.5 billion budget's fate either with the chief executive or the courts.

Save for the eleventh hour lobbying and arm twisting over one budget proposal, the outcome was never in question. The budget package was designed by Democrats and approved almost exclusively by Democrats -- the first chance they've had to take a full test drive of the majority vote power in last November's Proposition 25.

Republicans seemed, at times, to relish their relative irrelevance. And all the while, the news nuggets and political spin bubbled and boiled on Twitter, which is fast becoming Sacramento's favorite pastime.

Some highlights...

KQED/John Myers

Oh No You Didn't: Might as well begin with the incident that doesn't belong in any budget story but will no doubt tempt every one of us in the Capitol press corps to find some way to include it in our stories. Yes, this is the almost-but-maybe-not-and-what-was-it-all-about fight that broke out on the Assembly floor about the honor of Italian Americans.

It began during the debate over AB 26x, the first of two bills to kill and resurrect redevelopment agencies (RDAs), with the bottom line being a $1.7 billion state budget deficit fix in 2011-12. Assemblymember Don Wagner (R-Irvine) was trying to argue that the Democratic bill was not exactly a friendly overture to RDAs. Wagner, winding up his rhetorical flourish with a reference to Tony Soprano. Likely Wagner was flummoxed when Assemblymember Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) rose to demand an apology to the sons and daughters of Italy. But Wagner's retort... well, it seemed to have been received poorly.

"I will apologize to any Italian Americans who are not in the Mafia and engaged in insurance scams," he said.

From there, Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Burbank) threw up his microphone to object and shot some angry looks toward Wagner. But after the furor seemingly died down, Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) -- whose bio makes clear isn't an Italian American -- strode up to Wagner's desk and said, "You stepped in it!" The two men were now almost chin to chin, prompting a scramble to separate them.

The action starts at about three minutes into the below video, saved for posterity by the good folks at the California Channel.

The Hard Sell: Speaking of the redevelopment proposal, it was easily the main event of the annual Budget Vote Wrangling Contest. Dems sent forward two bills -- one to dismantle RDAs in their current form, the second to resurrect them into entities that share revenues with the state. Supporters in the redevelopment community have, for months, argued that Governor Brown's plan was/is illegal, in part, because 2010's Proposition 22 bans the taking of RDA money for the state budget. Democrats said this plan was/is optional: no local agency had to join up for the new version of RDAs. But if they didn't, that agency would be dismantled. Which led to what would have been the best RDA moment of the day had the #AsmFaceOff not taken place, uttered on the Senate floor by Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood), a passionate RDA supporter. "In south central LA, we call that a shakedown," said Wright. "You give me your money, or I shoot you in the head."

Redevelopment agencies and cities were pushing a full court press to block the Democratic leadership proposal. The hallway outside the chambers was thick with lobbyists and with legislators stepping out to hear the pleas in person. Three Democratic assemblymembers I overheard between floor debates were discussing the data lobbyists had given them about job losses and economic impact if RDAs were nixed.

But after some brief drama in the Senate, two hesitant Dems went from not voting to voting 'aye,' while later in the Assembly passage was much easier. The RDA debate also saw the only bipartisan bickering of the day, with Dems and GOP legislators on both sides, reflecting both the complicated track record of redevelopment projects around the state and the 'all politics is local' nature to any effort to usurp what have been, to date, protected tax dollars.

Full Court Press, Vol. I Few perennial debates produce more fireworks among politicos while also leaving average folks more confused than the question of what constitutes a tax and what makes something a fee. Voters agreed to weigh in to the issue last fall by passing Proposition 26 to ostensibly clarify and strengthen the rules about fees, which historically have been subject to only a simple majority vote... unlike a tax. Today's budget was no different; there was hearty debate over a plan to annually assess homeowners $150 in rural areas where the state offers fire protection, as well as over a separate plan to tack on a new $12 vehicle registration fee to defray the costs of running everyone's favorite department, the DMV. Will Prop 26's new restrictions get a legal test drive? Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association put it thusly in a tweet: "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to court we go."

Full Court Press, Vol. II: Another possible case for anti-tax legal beagles could be filed over the budget's 'single flip' sales tax plan. In a nutshell -- and see yesterday's posting for more -- the plan undoes a tax swap plan from the Schwarzenegger era and results in a slightly higher (one quarter of a cent) local sales tax than is scheduled to be in effect on July 1, with the state removing itself from reimbursing locals in the original swap and thus saving money. Republicans universally panned this one and declared it an illegally "raised" tax. Assemblymember Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) called it "a sneaky little trick" in her floor comments.

Full Court Press, Vol. III: If the budget isn't tied up in court, it may leave the courts fit to be tied. California's top jurist, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye went on the offensive over the Democratic plan's new $150 million cut to court funding, saying it "strikes a blow against justice."

Unhappy Campers, Line Up Here: Democratic legislators were also getting hammered by others who, to date, have supported their efforts to balance the budget. Reason for the change: that was back when taxes were on the table. The new budget cuts $150 million from the UC and CSU systems, respectively. UC president Mark Yudof quickly went on the offensive. "We oppose its implementation," said Yudof in a statement with UC Regents chair Russell Gould "and will marshal the voices of people throughout the state to urge that Governor Brown restore our funds." Earlier, leaders of the California State Association of Counties also walked away from Democratic leaders, expressing "profound disappointment" (PDF) over what they seem to think is the limbo in which the plan leaves Brown's plan to realign public safety programs. And there are many more unhappy campers out there, no doubt.

Budget Talking Points, Drinking Game Version: Democrats fell all over themselves to say that this budget (1) isn't their preferred option and (2) isn't their preferred option. Republicans were equally giddy to proclaim (2) Dems own this budget and that (2) Dems own this budget.

Jerry's Quandry: And now, the news that's yet to be written -- what will the governor do? Brown's reaction to a budget plan that's far afield of what he was pushing, even up until the last minute, was the parlor game of the day. Will he actually veto the budget, they buzzed, and possibly create a feud inside Democratic ranks? Or will he sign the budget, then being treated to a chorus of 'You broke your campaign promise to not do gimmicks?'

We should get an indication tomorrow when he travels to L.A. to talk to the press (um, not the reporters up here who cover the budget, but nevermind). It's worth noting that Democrats insisted that they're not abandoning Brown's tax extension and realignment plan, nor are they abandoning talks on changing public employee pensions and government regulations on business. If that's true, perhaps the governor would find a way to make this budget a "bridge" to his ultimate goal.

Finally, the History: Thanks to the smarts of the Assembly's chief clerk, Dotson Wilson, some relevant trivia. Today marked passage of the first majority vote budget in the California Legislature since May 4, 1933 when the Assembly sent a budget to Governor James Rolph, Jr. on a 41-39 vote. Later that year, voters amended the state constitution to force more budgets to be ratified by a supermajority vote... a threshold that became mandatory through a separate government reform ballot measure in 1962.

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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.
  • flicka47

    It’s going to be interesting to see if some of these items can stand, or if they Legislature ends up having shot themselves in the foot over them. The SRA “fees” and the “local” tax come immediately to mind…

    Mostly though, I want to thank you guys for doing such a great job with the real news reporting so I could get in all my snark tweets!(I wanted to say “with the blow by blow”, but thought better of it!…snicker…)

    Seriously though you really did a wonderful job. It’s not easy to be accurate and fast with something that goes on for well over two hours, let alone with the number of speakers involved and answering folk’s questions as well. Because you guys did the real work, I could fill in my twitter followers who either couldn’t watch CalChannel or aren’t quite as CaBudget-crazy as I am! Even though we knew the Dems were set on passing their budget no matter what, getting the whats and whys and hows tells folks a lot. Thanks for what you do.