Wednesday, September 24, 2008

East Bay legislators bemoan budget process

MARTINEZ — After months of frustrating and often fruitless state budget haggling, Contra Costa's two state assembly members got two hours of free therapy Tuesday by way of the county's legislation committee.

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger prepared to sign the tardiest state budget in history, Assembly members Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock sat down with two county supervisors and an assortment of department heads and staff to vent, kvetch and vow to change the supermajority voting threshold they say held Democrats hostage.

"It won't get better until we get rid of the supermajority, in my opinion," DeSaulnier said.

The Martinez Democrat said he expects a June special election will carry an initiative to change budget passage to a simple majority, rather than the current two-thirds threshold. It would take $3 million to $5 million to run a statewide campaign, he said.

"The two-thirds majority is the third rail in partisan politics," said Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, legislation committee chairwoman.

Piepho, who supports keeping the supermajority, said there are "significant structural problems everywhere" that cause more fiscal concern.

In 2004, voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, defeated an attempt to lower the budget passage threshold to a simple majority.

That initiative also would have lowered the tax increase threshold to a 55 percent majority.

The new initiative would abandon any revenue enhancement proposal Advertisementand focus on a simple majority state budget requirement, DeSaulnier said.

Only Arkansas and Rhode Island require super majorities to pass budgets.

DeSaulnier, who along with Hancock is expected to win a state Senate seat in November, said the first thing he will do is author a bill calling for a constitutional convention in California.

The East Bay legislative pair pulled no punches Monday in calling out their Republican counterparts' roles in the budget debacle.

"We do talk, but I think when you have a very well-disciplined, militant party like this it does need some loosening up within, so members feel like the can vote their conscience," said Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat.

The pair exchanged stories of conversations with Republican lawmakers who wanted to break from party ranks and compromise on raising taxes but feared party retribution.

"Somebody needs to actually get some flexibility to get some negotiating going," Hancock said.

"I would argue that Republican leadership never came to the table," DeSaulnier added.

"They've moved moderates like your father out," he said to Piepho, whose father John Nejedly served more than a decade as a Republican state senator representing Contra Costa.

With Republicans taking such a strong stand against raising taxes, DeSaulnier said, legislators only had three options left: borrowing from financial institutions, borrowing from local governments or cutting spending.

DeSaulnier's idea to bridge $5.2 billion of the deficit by increasing the state income tax on California's wealthiest back to 1992 levels never had a chance, he said. The $15.2 billion shortfall will be bridged by advancing revenues from future years and shifting and borrowing money from other state funds.

With county staff still scrambling to calculate Contra Costa's repercussions from the budget — likely to hit health and human services and redevelopments agencies hardest — Piepho wondered if lawmakers in Sacramento were out of touch with impacts at home.

"Do you lead in fear of what your party is going to do or for what you should do for the people?" Piepho asked rhetorically.

DeSaulnier and Hancock spoke of moving toward performance-based budgeting or a two-year budget process. If nothing changes, a new delinquency record could be set next year.

"Something has to break this cycle or it will happen again next year," Hancock said.

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  • East Bay legislators bemoan budget process
  • East Bay legislators bemoan budget process