In a show of good faith one year ago, legislative Democrats slashed Medi-Cal, cut universities and reduced welfare grants to slice the state deficit 13 weeks before the constitutional deadline.
But this year Democrats are refusing to go along with Gov. Jerry Brown's most controversial reductions, spurning his demand to have cuts in place by March.
They oppose Brown's plan to halve the amount of time that unemployed adults can receive welfare-to-work benefits and to slash grants to children. Assembly Democrats have voted against his proposal to cut scholarship aid for 26,000 low-income students through higher grade requirements for Cal Grants.
Brown wanted lawmakers to fast-track his cuts again because he said the state can save more money the earlier it reduces programs. But Assembly Democrats have rejected welfare and Cal Grant cuts, while Senate Democrats say they will wait until at least May before making any real decisions.
"It's just March, it's just March," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, emphasizing that it remains relatively early in the budget calendar.
Despite warnings by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office that Brown's fiscal forecast is too optimistic, Steinberg hopes tax receipts will be higher in April than the governor predicted and that a Facebook stock sale will boost state coffers.
"We ought not do any more damage to people before we have to and unless we absolutely have to," Steinberg said.
Unlike previous years, the state is not in immediate danger of running out of cash to pay its bills. Nor do Democrats need to extend an olive branch of cuts to Republicans, since they are going directly to voters with a tax initiative and can now pass budgets with a majority vote.
At the same time, Democrats do not want to anger their base with tough reductions before the June 5 statewide primary election.
"They're mainly taking symbolic actions so they're on record as opposing these proposals," said Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, who recently published a study of state budget gridlock.
By refusing to accept cuts now, Democrats are staking out a negotiating position for later this year. In recent budget battles, Democrats have ultimately softened governor-proposed cuts through various maneuvers and alternative reductions:
Assuming fewer people will use public services.
Assuming higher future revenues based on a brief spike in tax receipts.
Cutting funds for K-12 schools and community colleges by revising the state's education funding formula.
Imposing Medi-Cal fees in a way that shifts costs to the federal government.
Incorporating ideas from labor unions, such as one last year to install automated medication dispensers in homes of Medi-Cal patients to avoid hospitalization. Lawmakers counted on the idea to save $140 million, but the state has since abandoned the plan.
At budget hearings, long lines of students, welfare recipients and program advocates have testified for hours about the devastation they believe Brown's cuts would bring.
"We're not going to throw a million kids over the cliff," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, referring to Brown's cuts to CalWORKs, the state's welfare-to-work program.
Assembly Democrats have won praise from program advocates for taking a stand. But Brown's Department of Finance has warned that Democrats must still find other ways to balance the budget.
By the department's count, the Assembly has rejected $1.3 billion of Brown's nearly $4 billion in cuts.
"If the actions to date were their final word on the matter, the Assembly would have to come up with more than a billion dollars in savings somewhere else to balance the budget," said Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.
Democratic leaders objected to the suggestion that they were digging a deeper hole. Blumenfield said his house is committed to saving money in welfare-to-work and other programs to balance the budget, just not in the way Brown proposed.
"In a deliberative process, you reject ideas you don't agree with, and you find over time other ideas that will get you to the same budgetary savings," said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles.
Even though an Assembly budget subcommittee rejected the governor's nearly $1 billion cut to CalWORKs, Blumenfield said that does not count as lost savings because the house will find other ways to make up for it.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, the GOP's budget committee vice chairman, suggested that Republicans are closer to Brown than Democrats on the cuts, though his party opposes the governor's tax hike.
"It's not really a difficulty for Republicans," the Gerber Republican said. "It's a huge difficulty for the governor. He can't even work with his own majority party."
Brown wants cuts not only to help bridge the deficit, but to convince voters later this year that the state isn't counting solely on a tax hike to balance the budget. Cummins said voters are probably not paying attention to the Legislature's early rejection of cuts just yet.
"But come October when the governor is making a pitch for his initiative," Cummins added, "he will have a stronger argument if he can say the Legislature made some significant cuts."