Budget Mire Forces Calif. Senate Lockdown

A tired Sen. Robert Dutton (R) holds his head in his hands as lawmakers in Sacramento work to hammer out a $42 billion package to fill a massive budget gap
A tired Sen. Robert Dutton (R) holds his head in his hands as lawmakers in Sacramento work to hammer out a $42 billion package to fill a massive budget gap (Justin Sullivan - Getty Images)
By Karl Vick and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 17 -- Locked inside the state Capitol until they pass a $42 billion package to fill a mammoth budget gap, California lawmakers carried sleeping bags and extra socks into the ornate Senate chamber Tuesday, settling in for a long stalemate in a state where political paralysis is becoming a way of life.

A single Senate vote was needed to pass the budget patch, and the state's political leaders were nearly out of options. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last month issued an order shuttering most state offices two Fridays a month, began the process of laying off 20,000 state workers and suspending 270 construction projects.

The state has ceased sending out tax refunds and is on the verge of sending IOUs to contractors. No state carries a lower bond rating.

"We're just searching for that one more vote," Schwarzenegger (R) said Tuesday.

Democrats dominate both chambers of the assembly and all are for the package, but the constitution requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. That means three Republicans must overcome a group promise not to increase taxes. So far, two have come forward.

"What you have going on in Sacramento right now is a dysfunctional government trying to function," said Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist. "There is no center in that state legislature. Things are worse than they are in Washington. What we have is a huge majority of very liberal Democrats and a small minority of very conservative Republicans."

In the morass, Hoffenblum and other observers glimpsed a ray of hope in the terms that Republican Abel Maldonado offered for his potential vote: a promise to allow California voters to consider a ballot measure to create "open primaries," ending the closed system that allows primaries to be dominated by motivated activists from both parties.

"That would be good government," Hoffenblum said.

The budget measure would trim spending by $15 billion, including $8.6 billion from funding for public schools. It would raise $14 billion in taxes by increasing the sales tax by 1 percent and the gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon, by doubling vehicle registration fees and by levying a 2.5 percent surcharge on income taxes. The rest would come from new borrowing.

Because of a cap on property taxes, California is especially reliant on income taxes and is, therefore, hypersensitive to economic downturns. The foreclosure crisis also hit the state earlier and harder than elsewhere.

By late afternoon, arguments on the Senate floor were so well worn that legislative staff members amused themselves by playing "budget session bingo" on cards with squares marked in the terms of the tired debate.

But there was action behind the scenes. "We got the ransom note, and the ransom is reasonable," said one senior Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he characterized the situation in criminal terms.

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