Election Section

Politics heat up with no budget

By Alexa H. Bluth, The Associated Press
Monday July 15, 2002

AUBURN – The lights were dimmed to conserve power on a searing afternoon last week, but otherwise it was business-as-usual at the tiny Department of Motor Vehicles office here. 

In fact, many of those doing business with the state Thursday in this foothills town were unaware that California had crept 11 days into the fiscal year without a budget. Those who knew were unconcerned. 

As a budget standoff between Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor seeking re-election heats up, California residents seemed more worried about their lights staying on during summer’s heat. 

“They always get it done in the end,” said Katy Fries, 36, a former teacher from Auburn. “I can’t get into the panic.” 

The California Assembly is scheduled to meet Monday to debate the $99.1 billion budget and $3.6 billion in tax increases needed to help balance it. The plan – crafted by Gov. Gray Davis to close a $23.6 billion budget deficit – was supposed to go into effect July 1. 

Rebecca Cryer, a 29-year old finance director who drove 40 miles to Auburn to avoid lengthy lines at the DMV in the capital, hadn’t heard the state budget was late. 

“Once it starts to affect you is usually when you start to worry,” she said, shrugging. 

Political analysts agree with Cryer: Residents likely won’t get fired up until they start to feel the pinch personally. 

“It resonates slowly with the voters. It’s 12 days and people haven’t seen any really tangible impact,” said Ted Lascher, department of public policy and administration chairman at California State University, Sacramento. 

Bill Simon, the Republican candidate who wants to unseat Davis, is counting on voters taking notice. With Davis’ approval ratings still low and summertime power alerts starting up again, political analysts say a drawn-out budget duel could help the political newcomer. 

Simon began airing a 30-second television spot last week criticizing the Davis budget plan and pledging he wouldn’t raise taxes if elected governor. 

Davis, meanwhile, has insisted that Simon has failed to offer up his own budget plan. The Davis campaign has issued press releases daily since mid-May calling for Simon to do so. 

And Simon, a multimillionaire who stayed out of the public spotlight before his gubernatorial bid, has been unable to direct focus on the budget standoff, instead deflecting mounting questions about his own business experience and, Friday, reports that he had used offshore tax shelters now under federal investigation. 

Jamie Hawes, 21, was a crisis counselor at an Auburn women’s shelter that recently laid off she and about 30 other employees because of state cutbacks. She said she doesn’t blame Davis and has been moved by Davis ads criticizing Simon’s record as a businessman. 

“I don’t think (the budget issue) will overcome the other obstacles that Bill Simon is facing,” Hawes said. 

That could change, analysts say, if the standoff drags on, which is a possibility. 

The latest a budget ever was signed was September 2, 1992, when the Gov. Pete Wilson combined tax increases and budget cuts to fill a $14 billion hole. Wilson, a Republican, was working with a Democratic Legislature. 

Davis, in contrast, is working with a Democrat-controlled Legislature. But the Assembly needs four GOP members to pass the budget by the necessary two-thirds majority. 

The state Senate approved the budget bill June 29 and then adjourned until August. But the spending plan fell five votes short of passage the following day in the Assembly, the day before the new fiscal year began July 1. Since then, Davis and Democratic leaders have been trying to negotiate for the Republican votes to approve the measure. 

Davis has said he has secured two GOP votes, but 28 of the 30 Assembly Republicans signed a letter to Davis Thursday pledging to stick together. 

Assemblymen Dick Dickerson, R-Redding, and David Kelley, R-Idyllwild, did not sign the letter and have indicated they might be willing to vote in favor of the Davis budget plan. 

Observers, however, say the final two votes might be hard to get this year. 

“You don’t want to defect from your party in an election year. It’s out there and it’s visible at a time when you both need party support for your election,” said Kim Rueben, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.