Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California budget has many holes to fill in 10 days

Anyone who would tune into the Legislature's budget conference committee sessions this week expecting to learn how the 2013-14 budget is shaping up would be disappointed.

The committee is going through the budget item by item, at least those items where the Assembly's Democrats and the Senate's Democrats differ, but anything more than slightly controversial is being "left open."

That's political speak for those items that will not be resolved in public but rather behind closed doors, with the largest left to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature's top leaders.

The committee's public sessions are aimed at maintaining the fiction that writing the budget - more than $200 billion in all forms of spending - is an open process. Their major value, really, is to provide clues to the many conflicts that linger just 10 days before the constitutional deadline for enactment.

Once, that June 15 deadline meant virtually nothing. But three years ago, voters passed a constitutional amendment that lowered the two-thirds vote requirement for budgets to a simple majority, thus giving Democrats total control. It also said legislators' salaries would be cut off if they didn't meet the deadline.

The unintended consequence was to compress the budget process, leaving less time for governors and legislators to work out differences, even though they are now just among Democrats.

The biggest conflict is the overall size of the budget, with the legislative versions assuming $3 billion-plus more in revenues than Brown's version and spending nearly $2 billion more. But while Democratic legislators want to spend more, they disagree, rather sharply, on where the extra spending should go.

So in one sense, it's a two-way conflict, while in another it's a three-sided wrangle, as the desultory discussions within the conference committee have made apparent.

The Democratic contingent on the committee is dominated by very liberal legislators who've repeatedly pleaded for more health and welfare spending while Brown's point man, Michael Cohen, has repeatedly warned legislators about making overly optimistic revenue assumptions.

In addition to the macro-conflicts over income and outgo, there are many specific differences that will be difficult to resolve before June 15, with overhauling how state school money is allocated the biggest, both financially and politically.

Brown wants to shift more money to school districts with large numbers of poor and/or English learner students, and while the Senate's leaders appear willing to go along, albeit with some tweaks, the Assembly's Democrats are clearly less willing and don't want the issue in the budget process at all.

Brown may be learning that dealing with his fellow Democrats on the budget is no easier than dealing with Republicans.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.