Beware hidden agendas in budget ‘deal’

Not only does this state budget “resolution” reached by legislative leaders push our problems off until next year without any sort of meaningful, lasting solution, but it also might involve gutting a key environmental protection. Frank Russo at the California Progress Report nails it:

As a reward to powerful interests that were slapped down by a court decision in July and prevented from building a power plant that would add tons of pollutants per day to the already brown skies of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the fix is in for an amendment that the public will not be able to see in one of the bills attached to the California Budget to be voted on tonight. The hope is to slip this provision through — without a committee hearing and daylight that would expose what is being done here.

There is no way that this legislation, which has been ready in Legislative Counsel form since at least August 20 would ever pass the policy committees of either house. The arguable links to the budget are tenuous at best. The plan is to slip it into SB 1083 which right now is a shell of a bill with the “author” being the Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review. It will be brought up on the floor in “mock up form.’ i.e. without being available to the public, and at a time when it may hardly be noticed during the chaos that passing a California budget has turned into.

This is an affront to the California Environmental Quality Assurance Act (CEQA) and to the state’s legal process. It is contradictory to the scheme of AB 32, the landmark global warming greenhouse reduction bill that the legislature passed in 2006 and that Governor Schwarzenegger signed with much ballyhoo.

And Assembly Labor and Employment Committee Chairman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, tells me that might not be all — he hears Republicans might try to slip into a trailer bill tonight a measure to clarify a state law exempting tech companies from paying overtime to highly skilled employees, something labor unions oppose.

“We will have several votes, we will vote on the budget and then we will vote on these trailer bills,” Swanson told me a short while ago as he drove toward Sacramento for what’s sure to be a contentious evening. “All we can do is stand up and argue against them and vote against them, but there may be a large enough coalition to pass those even over our objections.”

To review, this budget “deal” ends a record-breaking budget impasse with a plan that includes no new taxes or borrowing, but raises more revenue by, as the Chronicle puts it, “eliminating tax deductions that businesses take when they have net operating losses, creating an amnesty program for cheats who pay their overdue taxes, requiring limited liability corporations to pay their fees earlier, and requiring businesses and individuals to make bigger estimated tax payments sooner – 60 percent of taxes to be paid in the first half of the year rather than 50 percent.”

This, after $9 billion in cuts that Democrats had agreed to earlier. So: spending cuts, accounting sleight-of-hand, no real new revenue, and a certainty that we’ll have to do it all over again next year. This is the result for which California endured so many weeks of uncertainly and pain while schools, child care, nursing homes and other entities were starved of state dollars. Faced with tough choices and growing pressure, the Legislature is finally… skipping town. Republicans have put ideology over reality, and Democrats have put expediency over good policy.

Swanson insists it wasn’t all for naught — he said Democrats held the line on education cuts, restoring $2.1 billion in education funding which had been cut in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget revision. And although they’d agreed early on to Republican demands for cuts to all manner of state services, Democrats didn’t allow any of the more “draconian” cuts subsequently put forth by GOP lawmakers, he said.

Republicans still won’t acknowledge the state has a revenue problem, he said, and the early-collection strategies used in this deal aren’t a long-term fix: “I don’t want to say it’s check-kiting, but it’s somewhere in that family.”

“All the pain that has been demonstrated here… really shows that our budget system is broken, that so far there’s been a lack of political courage to make the real decisions,” Swanson said, renewing his call for a pair of ballot measures to amend the state constitution: one making it so that a simple majority, rather than two-thirds, of each Legislative chamber can pass a budget; and the other to require a 55-percent majority for tax hikes. “And then, when we have to address the structural deficit, we’ll have the tools to do it.”

But once this year’s budget settled, will Democrats have given away their most powerful argument for such constitutional amendments? Will voters remember what caused this impasse, and the pain it produced, if it’s not right there in their faces? Pain is a symptom that tells you you’re hurt; we’re reaching for anesthesia today, not a cure, and sooner or later we’ll have to take real medicine.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, about to end his tenure in what should’ve been a position of great power, certainly wasn’t mincing words when he talked to they-who-must-not-be-named a few days ago: “As the governor said, we are only kicking the can down the street. Next year we’ll have the same problem… Bottom line — the Republicans won.”

I think we’ll eventually see that California lost.

UPDATE @ 1:15 P.M. TUESDAY 9/16: That tech overtime bill Swanson of which spoke above? Yep, it passed. The Assembly approved it 54-19, the state Senate 28-8.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.