Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, hosted a conference call this afternoon for bloggers — mostly the liberal Democratic netroots, as it turned out.
It was contentious to say the least. Bass was hammered with questions about what she is and isn’t willing to give up in order to get a budget plan passed by this month’s end, and ultimately offered few details.
“We are going to fight as hard as we can for a balanced approach,” Bass vowed, adding that while that almost certainly won’t mean a 50-50 split between budget cuts and revenue increases, “we are going to do everything we can” to ensure the state’s $24 billion deficit isn’t solved by cuts alone.
“We really do have to put this incredible pressure on the governor to sign majority-vote revenue,” Skinner urged – fees or revenue-neutral tax swaps, as opposed to tax increases requiring a two-thirds majority and thus effectively stonewalled by Republicans.
Bass agreed, but wouldn’t identify specific revenues she wants to hike: “I just want them to total up to about $5 billion, minimum.”
Bass said her caucus is committed to changing Proposition 13’s property tax assessment restrictions so that residential owners remain fully protected while commercial owners are reassessed more regularly. But just as with abolishing the two-thirds-vote requirement for taxes and budgets, she said, no Republican will ever sign off on it, so it’ll have to be accomplished with an initiative placed on the ballot via petition signatures. And that’ll come long after the state runs out of cash and goes into default next month, she noted.
Bass said she’s worried that if the state defaults, “some entity” – which a blogger later narrowed down to a special master appointed by a bankruptcy court – could take control of state finances and enact cuts without lawmakers input. The blogger – I believe it was the relentless Michael Fox of The Liberal OC – said he couldn’t imagine how such a thing could happen given the state and federal constitutions’ guarantee of representative government.
More on whose arms are about to be twisted, after the jump…
Bass and Skinner gave some clues as to specific actions they might pursue by pointing to a plan laid out by the California Tax Reform Association, including improved tax collection methods, closure of tax loopholes and — yes — some majority-vote revenue increases.
After the assemblywomen left the call, Frank Russo – who before becoming Skinner’s chief of staff was one of the bloggers’ own as the founder and proprietor of the California Progress Report – laid out the logistical barriers: Even within the Democratic caucus, it can be hard to build consensus on simple-majority fee increases, for example, if some feel beholden to the oil industry, or to the tobacco industry, or to the wine industry.
“You could take a look and see who did not vote for majority vote fee increases in December, and those Democrats would be ones you’d want to push,” Russo mused.
For those who don’t remember what he’s talking about:
In December, Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Senate Leader Darrel Steinberg, D-Sacramento, guided a revenue increase package through their respective houses without any Republican votes. The plan would have eliminated an 18 cents-per-gallon excise tax and raised the state’s sales and income taxes. A separate bill in the budget package instituted a 39 cents-per-gallon fee on gasoline.
The net effect of the December package was a 13 cents-per-gallon hike in gas levies, a 3/4-cent increase in the state sales tax, a 9.9 percent surcharge on oil pumped in California, and a 2.5 percent income tax surcharge for every California taxpayer.
But Democrats argued the plan did not require a two-thirds vote because the tax bill was “revenue neutral,” and the new revenues came from fee increases. Fees, which are defined as revenues dedicated to a specific purpose or project, do not require a two-thirds vote.
The package was rejected by Gov. Schwarzenegger, who complained that the $18 billion proposal was not large enough to solve the state’s budget problem. Schwarzenegger called the plan a “terrible budget,” and quickly promised a veto.
Abstaining, absent or not voting for those majority-vote fee increases were newly-sworn freshmen Assemblymembers Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo; Marty Block, D-San Diego; Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills; and Manuel Perez, D-Coachella. State Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, joined Republicans in voting against them.
Bass spokeswoman Shannon Murphy — who earlier in the call had run interference when her boss was asked whether she and Steinberg see eye-to-eye on their budget priorities — before signing off told the bloggers Bass would like to have these tete-a-tetes with them on a weekly basis. My take-away is that Bass knows she might have a problem getting progressives to support whatever deal she brokers if they believe the cuts are too deep; I wonder what the netroots’ take-aways from this conference were…
UPDATE @ 5:10 P.M.: Here’s what Brian Leubitz of Calitics has to say about it.
UPDATE @ 7:14 P.M.: Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear says, “Let me be clear about the Governor’s position on taxes: He has ruled out taxes including majority vote fee increases and believes the deficit must be solved by cutting government spending and making the state run more efficiently.”