Budget Drama Marches Into March

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So many moving parts, so little time. That's the view from the cheap seats as to what's next in the 2011 budget saga, though it's admittedly not a very different prognosis than in years past.

Still, it's worth taking a look at some of those moving parts -- a look at the week ahead -- as the clock starts to loudly tick on Governor Jerry Brown's self-imposed deadline for a statewide special election on his budget plan.

In re Redevelopment: There's no denying that $1.7 billion is real money. But compared to the overall size of the state's projected deficit -- and when matched against some very deep cuts to social services and health programs -- the reason Brown's redevelopment proposal is getting so much attention is that it's real a political brawl.

Power brokers in cities across the state are fighting to keep redevelopment alive, pushing an alternative to the Guv's demolition that focuses on a long-term borrowing, via securitization, of property tax dollars earmarked for redevelopment agencies. On Friday, Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) outlined a modified version of the borrowing plan, one which he said would make it optional for locals to participate, thus avoiding the 'state taking the money' ban under last fall's Proposition 22. Meantime, other budget conferees on Friday expressed a desire to simply ask the voters to repeal Prop 22 and start over. All of the wrangling begs the question: has Brown's plan to permanently ax the local development agencies faltered? Or is this perhaps the final throes of RDA backers who fear the Guv is winning the battle?

Pension-O-Rama: Last week's sizzling recommendation by the independent Little Hoover Commission that lawmakers should freeze, and then lower, pension benefits for current state workers (not those already retired, BTW) symbolizes the sense that pension "reform" is in vogue here in Sacramento. With multiple bills having been introduced at the Capitol and the sense that some Republicans maybe looking at the issue as a key demand in budget talks, we're going to be hearing an awful lot about the issue in the near future.

Who's Backing Brown? The governor's trip down to Los Angeles Friday to pick up a budget blessing from the LA Area Chamber of Commerce either signals emerging consensus or much-ado-about-nothing. You choose. Brown clearly jumped at the chance to affix a 'business friendly' label on his plan (and getting in the news in the state's biggest media market didn't hurt), even though the state's most influential business group remains mum on his budget. Loyal Republicans, on the other hand, instantly dismissed the endorsement. With so little time left before March 10 (if that is the actual deadline), the governor may not get many more chances to go outside of what's been his main strategy: private Capitol meetings mixed with occasional but carefully planned chats with the press.

What's the Election Endgame? And now to the big question we're all waiting to answer: how does it all end? While it's true that some Democrats remain uneasy about the budget cuts in play (and the conference committee process has made that clear), the reality is that the looming deadline still comes down to whether enough Republicans will find a way to ratify a special election on additional taxes in June. While some are pushing both GOP legislators and Brown to accept the other's terms and move on, the two sides still seem to be at loggerheads. The governor probably wound up with a slight win in the PR battle after last Thursday's visit with budget conferees (his quip that not allowing vote is "not American" made several newspapers), but the Capitol isn't being overrun by people demanding to vote. Which means that either Republicans have some kind of heretofore unknown plan, or Governor Brown gets to choose between two bad alternatives: stick to his 'I'll-do-an-all-cuts-budget-if-you-really-want promise, or explore the often buzzed about idea that there's a way to call an election without a supermajority legislative vote.

Either of those options threaten to make the governor a bit of a political pariah, a designation that his predecessor knew all too well... and from which an already tough mission would seem to be Mission Impossible.