California Assembly members wait for the final vote to pass their budget. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
Sacramento - A long-awaited plan in the state Legislature to solve a record budget deficit was thwarted for a second night Sunday as legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger anxiously searched to find one more Republican senator to support the budget vote.
Schwarzenegger and the Legislature struggled for more than three months to find a compromise to close the $40 billion deficit. After finally reaching a breakthrough in talks last week, they entered the weekend confident that the Legislature would approve the budget bills that the governor was supposed to sign by today. But their confidence - and prospects for a budget - unraveled Saturday when it was apparent that Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill could deliver just one - his own - of three GOP votes needed in the upper house to clear the two-thirds majority required for passage. Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, abstained, but is expected to be a second Republican vote in support of the package.
Without a spending plan, California may rapidly reach what Schwarzenegger calls "financial Armageddon" - the state runs out of cash this month, infrastructure projects come to a halt, and the state's credit rating takes a further pounding.
On Sunday night, after marathon sessions that lasted more than 24 hours, both houses of the Legislature adjourned and said they would return Monday morning to continue pursuing the vote.
Leading up to this weekend's votes, Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders were careful not to say that there had been a budget compromise because they wanted to prevent lobbyists from pressuring lawmakers prior to any vote. But by Sunday, as exasperation grew, some lawmakers admitted a spending plan was in place and that votes had been secured - or so they thought.
"I was frustrated last night," Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County), said Sunday. "I'm past that point today.
"There is no reason for this budget not to be done except for the fact that a couple of individuals have elevated their individual political careers above the state of California," she said. "They are willing to let the state of California go off a cliff because they are concerned about their next primary."
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, agreed.
"I don't understand why in the eyes of some who are holding this up, how they don't see the precarious plight California faces without this budget," he said.
Senate Republicans even drew criticism from their GOP counterparts in the Assembly. Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia (San Bernardino County), said he was angry at his GOP colleagues in the Senate, calling them "recalcitrant."
Adams said he plans to be one of three Republican votes in the Assembly to approve the budget that includes nearly $16 billion in cuts, $11 billion in borrowing from Wall Street, and more than $14 billion in tax increases, which will likely be politically hazardous for any GOP lawmaker.
"I believe the incredible amount of spending cuts and reform package that's in this plan justifies raising temporary taxes," he said. "But if we do, we have to do this as a team."
If the plan passes, Californians will pay more in vehicle license fees, a 1-cent-on-the- dollar sales tax increase and a tax increase of 12 cents per gallon at the fuel pump.
Cogdill avoided questions from reporters both Saturday and Sunday. But his spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart, said her boss never guaranteed votes.
"His mission was to negotiate the best package possible and present it to his caucus and he did exactly that," she said.
Fissures in the Senate Republican caucus between moderate members and the more conservative camp that Cogdill is a part of seemed to deepen over the weekend.
"Clearly, Assembly Republicans are in a different sort of caucus than Senate Republicans," Sen. Ashburn said. "I've always said I want to keep an open mind."
If Cogdill's leadership appeared compromised, he challenged his own party to find better. After enduring criticism in a caucus meeting Sunday, the Modesto lawmaker offered to step down as leader if someone else would prefer to take his place. No one volunteered, a legislative source said.
But the larger, lingering question at the state Capitol is whether legislative leaders or Schwarzenegger can find a third Republican senator to approve the budget package. Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor remains "resolute" in working with legislative leaders to cajole another member to approve the budget.
One target is Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County), another moderate Republican. Maldonado told reporters Sunday that he hesitates to vote for new taxes. But he implied he may be open to changing his vote to "yes."
"I'm still working with the governor's office to see what we can come up with," he said. "We're still negotiating. We've got to keep working and see what we come up with."
Without a Budget, Problems Aplenty
If the state can't reach agreement on the budget, it faces even more problems, sooner rather than later:
Possible downgrades by bond rating firms to match the one by Standard & Poor's this month that dropped California's bond rating to the lowest in the nation.
Controller will continue to withhold payments for state tax returns, Cal Grant scholarships and other nonessential services.
Counties could find their March social service payments withheld by the state.
Although the state shut down about 5,600 construction projects in December, it kept 276 active, with a value of $3.7 billion. These could stop.
Source: California Department of Finance