A long, long year ahead

If the Democrats’ press conference at a Concord middle school this morning is a window into the future, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may want to add a few extra minutes onto his exercise regime: He’s gonna need the stamina.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata hammered the governor and Republican leaders once again over next year’s state budget, where Schwarzenegger has proposed 10 percent across-the-board cuts including a $4.4 billion slice out of schools.

Perata is livid over the proposed cuts and with the help of his Democratic colleagues and education interests, he is taking his case to the streets where he is stirring up a ruckus among teachers and parents.

Even an eighth grader got into the act on Monday, telling the audience that she is circulation an anti-cuts petition. (Remember Natalie Richardson’s name: She may be governor one day.)

If this strategy sounds like a familiar, you’re right. Schwarzenegger, Republicans and Democrats regularly use public pressure to leverage each other in tough negotiations.

The California Nurses Association beat the governor up side the head week after week when he tried to place budget and other reforms on the ballot in 2005. Voters rejected every one of his proposals and he delivered copious mea culpas the next year.

This year, Democrats have dug in their heels on education cuts and Republicans vow to block any new sources of revenue.

The governor says he’ll meet anytime and talk about any reforms — tax hikes included — but he wants to get started.

The Democrats don’t sound too interested in a powwow, particularly if Republican leaders stick to their “no new taxes” pledge.

With the help of the California Teachers Association, Perata and Democrats say they will go to the ballot and ask voters to protect education dollars if the governor and Republicans insist on reducing education funding to a level below the minimum required under the Proposition 98 funding formula. There’s also talk of trying to eliminate the two-thirds vote requirement for a budget in the Legislature.

The question is, will voters respond more favorably to Democrats than they did to Schwarzenegger?

On the one hand, voters say they elected lawmakers to pass the budget and they want them to get it done. But a growing number of people are worried about California’s schools.

There’s one thing for certain: This could be the worst budget fight in modern California history and there’s no guarantee that a fix for next year’s budget will solve the state’s ongoing structural fiscal problems. In other words, this year’s battle may be a rehearsal for an even stronger stalemate next year.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen