Marisa Lagos,Wyatt Buchanan
Monday, June 18, 2012

Sacramento –For two years in a row now, the Legislature has managed to meet its constitutional deadline to pass a budget – and it’s all thanks to voters.

Whether that’s a good thing depends on whom you ask.

In 2010, the California electorate approved Proposition 25, which required that lawmakers lose their pay if they fail to pass a budget by June 15, and also made it easier for the Legislature to approve a spending plan by lowering the vote threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority.

That enabled Democrats last year and on Friday to pass a spending plan without a single Republican vote. Although last year members of the minority party were a key part of budget talks, this year their involvement was almost nonexistent.

That’s because last year Gov. Jerry Brown wanted lawmakers to place a tax measure on the ballot, which required a two-thirds majority vote that could not be achieved without some Republican support. GOP lawmakers, however, refused to give Brown the votes he needed. So this year, the governor bypassed the Legislature and opted for an initiative, collecting voter signatures to place the tax increase on the ballot.
GOP irrelevant on budget

Thus, GOP leaders essentially became irrelevant in budget negotiations and were excluded as Democratic lawmakers and Brown worked to hammer out details of the new spending plan. Every Republican lawmaker voted against the plan, and it passed anyway.

Critics say the change in law has resulted in an opaque, secretive budget process, but one thing is clear: Gone are the days of budget deadlocks dragging into the fall. Majority Democrats no longer have to court a handful of GOP legislators for their votes, votes that were often obtained in exchange for concessions unrelated to the budget.

“The forces of getting a budget through the Legislature and to the governor have changed,” said Fred Silva, a government policy expert and longtime observer of state politics.

Those forces, he said, “are Democrats who want to be able, on the 15th, to get that thing to the governor so the minority party doesn’t bang on them for weeks saying, ‘Why didn’t you get it out?’ ”

Silva, who serves as senior fiscal policy adviser for California Forward, a government reform organization, said it was that public pressure, not the pay issue, that really motivated majority Democrats to pass an on-time budget.

Republicans, however, are smarting from their exclusion from the process. On Thursday, GOP members of the Senate Budget Committee refused to attend a committee hearing. Instead, they released a statement saying “the people of California have not been provided the adequate time to view budget related bills.”

Key among GOP objections was the fact that the budget bill language was not released to the public until Wednesday night and that Democrats decided to entirely forego a conference committee this year, where both chambers of the state Legislature publicly iron out the differences between what they have accepted of the governor’s plan.

Instead, state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, along with members of their caucuses and staff, met privately to craft a budget plan they could live with – and presented it to Brown behind closed doors.
Dems ‘have absolute power’

Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway said that process proves that Prop. 25 is a failure, and that voters were more focused on the provision docking lawmakers’ pay than the one allowing a simple majority to approve a budget.

“When I first got here … (Democrats) would always say, ‘If we just had a simple majority budget, it would be great. It would be all on us, and we would have to do the right thing,’ ” said Conway, R-Tulare. “We haven’t seen any of that happen. We realize they have absolute power to do what they want to do, but we have good ideas, and we represent parts of California, too.”

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