SACRAMENTO, CALIF. -- In the middle of California's fourth week without a state budget, the state Assembly had sunk to a level of giddy frustration where only animal sounds and metaphors would do.
With Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D) emitting barnyard epithets from the back of the ornate chamber, Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson (R) railed at a Democratic attempt to force a vote on a budget full of unpopular cuts just to make Republicans squirm.
"You're going to force these amendments and then you're going to vote against the bill," rumbled Johnson, addressing the cat-like figure of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), prowling at the back of the room. "You're going to put the cart before the horse and then you're going to shoot the horse."
Brown offered a reassuring smile. "I'm an animal lover, Mr. Johnson," he purred. "I own horses. I occasionally even bet on them."
By next week, if the Assembly and the state's fervently anti-tax governor, George Deukmejian (R), cannot reach some compromise, more than 200,000 state workers will find nothing more than "registered warrants" -- fancy IOUs -- in their pay envelopes.
Although California has had budget crises before, this is the longest and one of the bitterest, a sign of election year politics and a widespread feeling that the era of Reaganist aversion to taxes is about to end with no clear substitute philosophy in sight.
The next governor, either Dianne Feinstein (D) or Sen. Pete Wilson (R), is expected to be more receptive to budget compromise, but neither Assembly Republicans nor Democrats sense that either candidate will "bring them everything that they would like," said Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D).
Similar dramas have occurred this year in many other statehouses. The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Budget Officers calculate that 25 states have struggled with budget deficits brought on by falling tax revenues in a slowing economy. But California's $3.6 billion gap appears to be the largest, and its governor the firmest so far in clinging to the 1980s' notion of taxes as a dirty word.
It may be fitting that Reaganism has its last stand in Ronald Reagan's home state, although the image of the former president as a resolute foe of tax increases seriously distorts his behavior as governor here in 1967-1975. At the end of legislative sessions, Reagan was rarely a good Reaganist. He usually found grounds for compromise that raised taxes and fees.
Deukmejian is different. Robert Forsyth, a former Sacramento Bee reporter now serving as press secretary to the state Senate's Democratic leader, said the governor "is a hell of a lot smarter than Ronald Reagan and tends to be more of his own person."
Deukmejian is retiring from politics after two terms as governor and seems bent on leaving with a firm anti-tax record and perhaps even a last blow at automatic spending increases that have aggravated the latest budget crisis.
Deukmejian and his Assembly allies have demanded new limits on cost-of-living increases for welfare recipients and a suspension of Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988, which guaranteed about 42 percent of discretionary tax revenues to public schools and community colleges. Democrats, backed by scores of teachers flooding the capitol building, have defended Prop 98 and opposed the big cuts in cost-of-living increases demanded of welfare recipients by Deukmejian and his allies -- although in a significant concession they agreed to freeze some of those increases.
In an emotional debate last week, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D), who is expected to be elected to Congress in November, glared at Republican legislators and said: "I know you hate people on welfare. Well, I was one of those poor children on welfare. I was raised on welfare. There are a lot of poor children out there who deserve our support, who deserve to be able to eat, who deserve to be able to sleep."
This Assembly, like others, has often been unruly. It is full of ambitious, relatively young politicians bored with the rules and decorum of parliamentary debate. And the last few days have inspired far more than the usual number of grade school outbursts.
Many Assembly members react to their embarrassing budget deadlock with chagrin. "We've set another record for legislative incompetence," said Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R), one of those supporting Deukmejian's call for limits on welfare and education spending. Some fear the deadlock will persuade voters in November to pass Proposition 140, which limits Assembly members to three terms and senators and other elected state officials to two terms.
Legislative sources said late this week that Deukmejian appeared ready to bow to some tax increases, but many observers wondered if Republican Assembly members would go along.
Trapped in a holding pen of their own making, legislators have succumbed to the temptation to see themselves as a lower order of beasts.
Last week, an exasperated Assemblyman William Baker (R), with a vivid, if not totally accurate, recall of George Orwell's classic "Animal Farm," found that he had no copy of a bill he was voting on -- one of a series of Democratic budget maneuvers -- but that a lobbyist for water interests did. "Some pigs is more equal than others," he said.