By Kevin Yamamura
kyamamura@sacbee.com
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Brace yourself for another long year of budget talks.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a fiscal emergency and demanded swift action to eliminate nearly half of the state’s $19.9 billion deficit by March.

But the Legislature, divided as ever along partisan lines in an election year, doesn’t inspire much confidence that it will solve the budget anytime soon.

For starters, California should have enough cash to pay its bills until July. That means lawmakers and Schwarzenegger can negotiate all spring without the immediate specter of embarrassing IOUs.

While lawmakers were able to reach a difficult compromise last February to impose tax hikes and spending cuts, the repercussions of that agreement have encouraged both parties to hold their ground this time.

“I predict that this will go long,” said Joe Mathews, Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “I think Democrats will be under intense pressure not to cave in and hit their constituencies this time. And Republicans, after what happened with the February 2009 budget, are not going to want to raise taxes.”

The two GOP leaders who negotiated last year’s deal to temporarily raise taxes by $12 billion annually lost their jobs. One Republican leader, Sen. Dave Cogdill, was ousted the night of the budget vote. The other leader, Assemblyman Mike Villines, stepped down last spring.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, suffered a recall threat and bowed out of seeking re-election this year. The message sent by conservative GOP activists was clear – raise taxes at your own peril.

Democrats did not face the same degree of blowback. But some public employee unions and mental health groups helped kill budget measures in the May special election. After another round of cuts in July, activists grumbled that Democrats had ceded too much in budget talks.

That led Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to declare in October, “I’m done cutting.”

“They got really hammered in the blogosphere and by interest groups,” Mathews said. “There’s now a stronger feeling of, ‘Let’s reject these cuts, let’s just fight and protect this.’ ”

Nearly every legislator is in a safe district with little jeopardy of losing his or her seat. Only a handful of sitting lawmakers – as few as two – will face a serious re-election challenge in November.

Under term limits, lawmakers constantly look for other open seats to extend their political careers. That means surviving another party primary, where Republicans face anti-tax pressures and Democrats need support from unions. At least 10 sitting lawmakers will likely face competitive races in June.

“It makes it harder and harder for these elected officials to make tougher decisions, in particular when so many are involved in primary races running for some other office,” said Richard Temple, a Republican political consultant who once worked in the Legislature. “You can’t do any kind of compromises when you’re in these primary races.”

He suggested that “most likely nothing will happen until after June, when legislators have a little more wiggle room and have gotten through the primary.”

Tony Quinn, a former GOP legislative aide and editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, said he thinks one political factor could contribute to the Legislature reaching a quick deal that makes at least a partial dent in the shortfall: Schwarzenegger’s nomination of Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado to become lieutenant governor.

The Senate has to confirm Maldonado by Feb. 21, perhaps motivation for Steinberg to seek a budget vote from Maldonado. The Santa Maria moderate was crucial to last year’s deal.

If Democrats reject Maldonado’s confirmation, the budget path becomes dicier, Quinn warned.

“If the Democrats turn him down, they will have just turned down the one guy who helped them,” Quinn said. “That would seem to me to make the relations between the two parties even more frigid, and he will not be of any more help in the future.”

Schwarzenegger is hoping for an immediate agreement to eliminate $8.9 billion of the deficit before tackling the remaining $11 billion this summer. His office believes lawmakers must act soon to avoid making even deeper cuts later this year. He also wants lawmakers to place two measures on the June ballot to take about $1 billion from early childhood and mental health funds.

Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said last week that lawmakers need to move quickly because many of the spending cuts proposed by Schwarzenegger require three months of phase-in time.

The Legislature has 45 days to act under the special session before it technically is supposed to stop work on non-budget related issues, although that provision has carried little weight in the past.

Last year, lawmakers reached a February deal after the state halted public works projects and was days away from running out of cash. They reached a second deal in July after the state had been issuing IOUs for four months.

Neither problem is as severe for now.

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