Oh, What A Night

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If the 2011 state budget fight holds any lesson, any takeaway, perhaps it's this: California may be diverse, but it's politics are divergent. Differences that elsewhere are celebrated have, in Sacramento, bred dysfunction.

And the guy in the corner office now faces some choices about whether to stick to his strategy of pragmatic bipartisanship, even after coming up short on the biggest fight he's waged so far.

The $86 billion general fund blueprint that was sent to Governor Jerry Brown was such a foregone conclusion that, for most of Tuesday night, bills sped by at a dizzying speed. Republicans, with only a few exceptions, declined to crank up any fiery speeches predicting gloom and doom. Unlike all years where a handful of GOP legislators -- either after special deals with Democrats or with the silent blessing of their leaders -- put up the necessary two-thirds vote, the new 'majority rules' budget left them powerless to stop a unified no-tax Democratic proposal.

But for a few minutes during the evening debate, Dems didn't seem so unified. On the main budget bill, the Senate sat in limbo after six Democrats initially refused to approve the plan. For most of them, the issue was redevelopment -- the final legislative battle in a months long crusade by Brown to abolish the local property tax funded agencies and redirect dollars in 2011-12 to the state. Republicans snickered that the majority party couldn't pass a majority-only budget. But in the end, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg convinced two fellow Dems -- state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) -- to put up the last two votes.

A cluster of well-heeled lobbyists intent on saving the existing RDA structure were huddled all evening outside the Senate chamber, but left empty handed. Steinberg told reporters that he had promised the two senators that as the reconfiguration of redevelopment begins -- agencies will be resurrected only if they agree to annual revenue sharing with schools and fire services -- each agencies finances will be closely checked to ensure that they're being treated fairly. Several sources independently confirmed that what balking senators really wanted was another chance to save the existing RDA structure. And given that the actual bills to nix the agencies had been approved on June 15, their last hope was to try to stop the main budget bill.

As I reported this morning on The California Report, Brown's signature on the budget later this week will prime the redevelopment fight for a new round, this time in court. Supporters believe the legislation is clearly unconstitutional under Proposition 22, approved by voters last fall. They argue that the state has limited powers to abolish RDAs, and virtually no powers to either use those earmarked property tax dollars or pressure agencies into a new revenue sharing agreement.

"It is the classic smoke and mirrors," says Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities, on the proposal's ability to actually deliver money to help plug a state budget shortfall. "They know it. They don’t want anyone to know how illegal this is."

And as this morning's radio story made clear, other potential lawsuits are waiting in the wings. Anti-tax advocates may take issue with the budget's assessment of a rural property owner fee to offset state firefighting costs (is it a fee or a tax?), and critics of the budget's shifting of public safety duties -- and convicted criminals -- from prisons to jails may also seek judicial relief.

Democratic leaders believe those criticisms are without merit, while conceding that it wouldn't be a California budget if someone wasn't filing a lawsuit. Or twelve.

Governor Brown hasn't signaled when he'll sign the budget into law, though everyone believes it will be before the stroke of midnight Thursday, when the 2011-12 fiscal year officially begins. And now, the political spin cycle is revving up to assign blame for why the budget wasn't better... or... why it was better than it could have been.

Count Democrats in the former category, who made a point Tuesday of saying that the budget's details -- some reasonable, some awfully optimistic -- were the result of GOP "stonewalling" on Brown's plan to extend expiring taxes. Republicans, however, are trumpeting the budget as a victory... not because of what's in it, but because what's not in it: those same taxes.

And those with a vested interest in the plan's future impact -- university leaders, the state's top cop and top judge, and others -- are calling the budget unacceptable. Even so, it does seem to be about all that can be wrung out of the status quo at the Capitol. In fact, perhaps the most telling moment of the saga came when the best defense of the budget came from state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who declared it "financeable" for purposes of borrowing cash the state needs this summer and fall to pay the bills.

Governor Brown said as much in his written statement about the budget's passage. "Putting our state on a sound and sustainable fiscal footing still requires much work," he said.

Easier said that done, it seems.

KQED/John Myers

Epilogue: The real drama of Tuesday night was not the budget debate, but the eleventh hour decision by Governor Brown to veto SB 104, legislation to make it easier for farm workers to unionize. Brown either labored mightily over his decision, or intentionally sought to bury a controversial veto by releasing it in the dead of night, on the final day he had to act. At least 200 people representing farm labor crowded the hallway outside the governor's Capitol office all night long; older men and women were brought chairs, children slept under blankets spread out on the floor. Democratic legislators joined the vigil after the budget vote wrapped up, and a groan echoed through the hallways when the farm workers heard that Brown -- a man with ties to Cesar Chavez and the founding of the United Farm Workers -- had killed SB 104, through a carefully worded two page veto message (PDF) that expressed misgivings about "far reaching" elements of the proposal while vowing to becoming "personally involved" in a new compromise. The crowd gathered around UFW president Arturo Rodriguez as he engaged in what sounded like a tense cell phone conversation with Brown. If the anger in the hallway is any indication -- one woman cursing at the doors to Brown's office, heard only by CHP guards -- the governor may need the breathing room now available with the budget fight's conclusion to mend fences with some of his most passionate supporters.

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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.
  • Rick

    If with one party basically in charge California’s budget process is still this dysfunctional, how can we hold out hope that things will improve?

  • hello

    If the Democrats are able to win 2/3 of the seats in the Legislature, most of these lawsuits would go away. The exceptions would be the Republican lawsuit over pay and the lawsuit over RDAs. With the former, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen; with the latter the reasonable thing to do would be to decide that the Legislature has the power to abolish RDAs but not the ability to take the funding. So it stays at the local level. That would be a win for the counties and a loss for the RDAs.

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    As the night continued, several speeches were presented in honor of Noguchi and to recognize the determination and work required to capture Noguchi’s contribution to California art in one single exhibition.