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California's Budget: How Abel Raised Cain

Finished: California's Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg (left), congratulates GOP Sen. Abel Maldonado for casting the vote that ended a three-month budget impasse (Photo credit:  Rich Pedroncelli/AP).

Finished: California's Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg (left), congratulates GOP Sen. Abel Maldonado for casting the vote that ended a three-month budget impasse (Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP).

While the disciplined Assembly stood by in mid-February, waiting for the Senate to get its game on the field, the Senate speechified on the Floor and slept in the Big White Building. As in the familiar children's game of musical chairs, the Governor and Senate President pro Temps Darrell Steinberg were simply looking for that one Republican who would be in his seat when the budget music stopped. Theoretically, there were, at that moment, 24 Democratic votes and two Republican votes ready to go up. But, of course, 2/3 of 40 is not 26, it's 27.

The Dems
Democratic Senator Joe Simitian had refused to vote for the 08-09 budget in September '08, but was on board for February. Democratic Senator Lou Correa abstained in early votes on the final budget amendments but, after language he had requested was inserted in the 33-bill package, voila! Orange County (Correa is the lone Democrat from Orange County in the Senate) received $35 million in additional property tax revenues in the coming fiscal year, $35 million in the 2010-11 fiscal year, and up to $50 million annually after that. Result: Correa is an aye.

The Reeps
Deposed Republican leader Dave Cogdill had negotiated the budget in good faith and, even though he had been summarily replaced as the Republican leader, continued to promise to vote for the budget.

Senator Dave Cox had worked for years to undermine First Five, a program funded by tobacco tax pursuant to an earlier ballot measure. Cox wanted to take what he described as "surplus" First Five money, which funds early childhood education programs through a decision-making board in each county, and use it to pay for children's health insurance. The Governor and the leadership agreed to ask the voters (Prop 1D) to take up to $340,000,000 of "unencumbered" funds from First Five and use it to pay for regular budget expenditures in the health and human services area of the budget related to children. The problem, of course, is that First Five money would then be used to replace, instead of augment, state funds, and simply be dumped into the gaping maw of the General Fund deficit. And, even though Cox got what he wanted, he continued to push for other changes, including postponing enactment of California's landmark greenhouse gas emissions law, giving employers more leeway to schedule meal and rest breaks for their workers and reducing even more taxes in the budget package. The Governor and the Dems were not willing to go so far, and, in the end, Cox did not provide a vote on the budget.

Senator Roy Ashburn had already indicated his intention to vote for the budget after he secured an additional agreement to include a tax credit of 5% or $10,000, whichever is lower, for people buying a newly constructed home, in exchange for his vote. Or, as he put it, as a "stimulus" to his Aye vote.

And Then There Was One
Finally, it was down to Senator Abel Maldonado, a likeable, often clueless, young moderate Republican Senator from a coastal district that stretches from Santa Maria to Monterey. He seemed to love being wined and dined by the Governor and thrust into the spotlight over his deciding vote.

In exchange for his vote, he demanded three constitutional amendments and a tax cut.

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The Amendments
One, which is on the ballot in the special election as Prop 1F, would ban raises for legislators when the state is in a deficit position. A second was not agreed to in the budget package and would have barred salary to legislators between the budget due date and the date of adoption of a budget. I have always thought this proposal would be extremely unfair to those who have worked with leadership all year to craft a balanced budget and who are ready to go up on the vote, only to be kept on the hook for months while one or two members (always at the last minute) identify the price of their vote. Also, it must be said, most of the members are not as wealthy as Abel.

The third constitutional amendment is an interesting proposal, one which has, in the past, failed to pass muster with the California courts: the open primary. This would allow anyone to vote for anyone in the primary, regardless of party. The two top vote-getters would then slug it out in the general election. In a few competitive districts, the top two would be from different parties (like you have in the general now), but in most, the general election would simply be a re-run of the primary, more money wasted, more acrimony, same result. In addition, third and fourth party candidates would be knocked out in the primary. Nonetheless, the Governor and leadership agreed, desperately needing Maldonado's vote. There has been speculation as to whether Abel held out for the open primary mainly to bolster his chances for statewide office, thinking that moderate dems and reeps would vote for him over "ideologues". No date yet for a vote on this measure, so we'll see.

Abel also took credit for the elimination of a 12 cent gas tax in the budget. The Governor promised to eliminate some prison funding to make up for the loss.

The Budget Passes February 19th
The budget passes on Februry 19th and, on February 20th, is signed. Not, however, before the Governor wielded his blue pencil to cut more than half the Lt. Governor's budget and 47 million more dollars from the Courts. He also cut highway capital outlays and funds provided in the past for operation and protection of highways. So much for cutting the prisons.

Sheila Kuehl

Sheila Kuehl

Is There A Lesson Here?
Not surprisingly, I believe the lesson is that requiring a 2/3 vote to get a budget creates a mess. Those whose votes are sought hang ornament after ornament on the tree and soon, the budget and the Constitution are so laden with non-related extras, there is no way to really enact policy in any thoughtful way. To be fair, the electorate, tired of continual impasses created by the 2/3 requirement, have passed unconnected measures to raise revenues here and there for targeted purposes, which only added to the problem.

Sheila James Kuehl

Sheila James Kuehl was appointed to the California Integrated Waste Management Board on December 1, 2008, after having served eight years in the State Senate and six years in the State Assembly. Senator Kuehl served as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee from 2000-2006. Her website is

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