Unbeknown to them, a group of Assembly Democrats’ private gab session about the state budget impasse – including the political implications of accepting a Republican-driven spending plan without tax hikes – was broadcast across the Capitol on Monday, July 21, 2003.
Part of the more than hourlong conversation rang out on a broadcast system available inside the Capitol and to subscribers outside the building – including media and lobbyists. Alerted to the mix-up, Republican staffers recorded about 15 minutes of the conversation and later supplied a partial transcript to reporters.
The Assembly members at the meeting tried to guess which Senate Democrats would support a plan being crafted by Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco.
Some also tried to gauge the political costs of going along with a budget that contained heavy program cuts, suggesting that it might be advantageous to swallow an additional $1.5 billion worth of cuts included in the GOP plan this year, instead of next year when Assembly members face re-election.
The lawmakers also discussed how the budget impasse would affect a planned ballot initiative that some Democrats are pressing. The initiative would ask voters to reduce the required threshold to approve a budget to 55 percent of the Legislature instead of the current two-thirds requirement. At least one legislator said that a longer delay would help the case for lowering the threshold.
“Since this is going to be a crisis, the crisis could be this year. No one’s running, and maybe you end up better off than you would have, and maybe you don’t. But what you do is you show people that you can’t get to this without a 55 percent vote,” said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, according to excerpts of the discussion provided by Republican legislative staff.
Goldberg also said, according to the excerpts, that the budget crisis would illustrate what she called damaging effects of Proposition 13, which limited the growth of property taxes.
“Some of us are thinking that maybe people should see the pain up close and personal, right now,” said Goldberg, who could not be reached for comment Monday night.
The lawmakers were meeting in one of the Capitol’s many committee rooms, which are equipped to broadcast public hearings. The audio equipment typically is turned off for such private meetings.
“It’s just one of those accidents, much ado about nothing,” said Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton, who assembled the small group of what he called “progressive Democrats” that has been meeting since January to hash out budget issues.
The blunder came as the state has operated for 21 days without a budget, and as Senate leaders are reportedly on the verge of striking a budget deal that would not include new taxes.
Republicans – the minority in both chambers – have said they will not supply the needed votes for a budget that includes tax increases to help erase a $38.2 billion state budget hole. But Brulte and Burton have been meeting to reach a compromise that could hit the Senate floor this week.
Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who was at the meeting, was unhappy that the discussion was broadcast, but also was unapologetic.
“If the Republicans are gleeful that they caught us on tape, the discussion was open and frank, and frankly one that we need to have,” Jackson said. “It was really just sort of a brainstorming discussion.”
Still, when someone finally informed the group that the conversation was being broadcast, Goldberg uttered a profanity and declared, “How could that happen?”