SACRAMENTO – Lawmakers broke an initial state budget deadlock Thursday after Senate Democrats agreed to remove $3.5 billion in tax increases from a preliminary budget plan.
The move cleared the way for the Senate to approve its version of the budget 27-12, and for a six-member, two-house conference committee to begin efforts to put together a budget compromise.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, said the committee will have to resolve “very substantial differences of opinions,” including how to close a $4.5 billion budget hole.
Democrats want to fill $3.5 billion of that gap with tax hikes, he said. Republicans want more budget cuts.
The Assembly also approved its $99.3 billion version of the budget Thursday, but only after Democratic leaders stripped out appropriations to allow the measure to move to the Senate on a simple majority, 49-28 vote.
The Senate refused to use that tactic and its budget plan stalled initially Thursday two votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed.
But Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Sen. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, agreed to vote for it after the tax increases were removed. One Democrat, Sen. Ed Vincent, D-Inglewood, was absent from the vote.
Democrats have majorities in both houses but they need at least one Republican in the Senate and four in the Assembly to put together the two-thirds majorities that will ultimately be needed to approve a budget bill.
The chief budget stumbling block for Republicans is increases in vehicle fees and tobacco taxes and a suspension of business loss tax write-offs proposed by Gov. Gray Davis to help close a $23.6 billion revenue shortfall.
Peace warned that if the conference committee didn’t start work soon lawmakers wouldn’t make the June 15 constitutional deadline for putting a budget on the governor’s desk.
There’s no penalty if they don’t pass a budget by that frequently missed deadline, but Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, warned that state school aid could be cut off and state employees’ pay cut to minimum wages if a budget isn’t in place by July 1, the start of a new fiscal year.
An appeals court ruled Wednesday that state Controller Kathleen Connell can pay minimum wages to state employees, make payments on state debts and pay judges’ salaries in the absence of a budget.
But the court said the state can’t make support payments to public schools without a budget in place.
Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, warned Republicans that if they hold up the budget and cripple state government it could backfire on them in the November elections.
“If this body allows the government of the state to be impaired the way the federal government was impaired in 1995, then the public will see its way clear to find out who was responsible,” he said.
“Making operation of the state a partisan rather than a nonpartisan operation does not benefit anyone.”
“This is not partisanship,” replied Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine. “Republicans have been telling you for years that we were on course for a fiscal train wreck. The day of reckoning has come and we’re still waiting for ... a complete budget plan, a budget plan that will work.”
Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, challenged Republicans to offer their own budget proposals. “If you’re not interested in this particular plan then submit where you want the cuts to occur,” he said.
“Let’s get this budget over to the Assembly side. Let’s not sit around here day in and day out.”
Meanwhile, a group of law enforcement leaders urged lawmakers to approve Davis’ proposals, saying they’re worried that deeper budget cuts could hurt efforts to prepare for the possibility of terrorist attacks.
“It’s not a matter of...if, it’s a matter of when for this new war we’re in. So we have to be prepared,” said Redding Police Chief Bob Blankenship.