Clovis News

Fallout from special election cuts to the core

SACRAMENTO -- They are spinning the special election results differently, but Democratic and Republican lawmakers reached some consensus Wednesday: Cuts are coming -- they just don't know where.

Details will take weeks of negotiations to finalize. The cold reality is that California's deficit is now a whopping $21.3 billion through June 2010 -- and it could grow wider.

"The cuts that we make are going to be very painful to a lot of people," said state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "It's our job to do our best to minimize the impact where possible."

Possible plans include slashing schools and welfare programs, as well as borrowing money from cities and counties -- which could cause pain in small Valley towns hit especially hard by the sour economy.

Voters on Tuesday had a chance to trim nearly $6 billion from the deficit by approving borrowing from the state lottery and other programs. Other measures would have spent more on schools, restricted future spending and extended a temporary tax increase. But Props. 1A-1E were soundly rejected.

In Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Kings counties, voters shot down the measures by wider margins than the statewide average. None of the five budget propositions came close to drawing 40% support in the four counties.

The defeat was expected, but the scope of the loss was a blow to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned hard for the measures, including in the Valley, where he takes pains to nurture support.

Still, one political analyst said the message probably was not personal.

"It's really not that much a rejection of him," said Tony Quinn, a former legislative aid who studies state elections. "It's just a rejection of the political establishment."

Democratic leaders Wednesday suggested voters didn't want to make decisions they expect lawmakers to handle. The propositions required voter consideration because they contained changes to the state constitution or to programs voters previously approved.

Still, voters were "confused," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and wondered "why we were asking them to help us solve the budget problem."

Schwarzenegger said: "With an overwhelming majority, the people told Sacramento go and do your work yourself, don't come to us with your problems."

Republican leaders said voters simply did not like the $16 billion in temporary tax hikes allowed by Prop. 1A.

"They have spoken unequivocally," said Assembly GOP leader-elect Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo. "They do not want to see budget gimmicks. They do not want to see higher taxes."

Blakeslee on June 1 will replace Mike Villines, R-Clovis, who is resigning under heat from GOP activists who blasted him for supporting the ballot measures. Villines has already faded into the background, at least publicly, although he sat in Wednesday on a meeting of legislative leaders and the governor.

Lawmakers in February passed a budget that runs through June 2010. But they must revisit the plan because revenues fell short of projections as the economy tanked. The goal is to finalize a new plan by July 1 that will close the gap again and also keep the state from running out of cash to pay its bills.

Blakeslee and Senate GOP leader Dennis Hollingsworth said they would pursue a cuts-only plan. Democrats said across-the-board cuts are likely, but leaders did not rule out pursuing new taxes.

Neither party took much issue with the scope of cuts Schwarzenegger has proposed, about $9 billion in the next 13 months. That would still leave a $12 billion gap. The governor has proposed to close much of that by borrowing.

His plan includes taking $2 billion from cities and counties, which would be paid back within three years under state law. The proposal could wreck local government budgets, especially in small cities, local officials say.

In the Valley, the city of Clovis could lose more than $1.6 million from its $49 million budget. To cope, the city might borrow at high interest rates, dip into emergency funds or cut landscaping, even let grass die in parks, said City Manager Kathy Millison.

"There are really no good options at this point," she said.

In Selma, officials said the city could lose about $300,000 from its $8 million budget, forcing layoffs of up to six people, plus cuts in programs such as recreation.

Republicans suggested the answer to closing the state's budget gap was more cuts, not borrowing, although they did not identify specific programs to ax.

"To engage in wholesale borrowing to maintain spending at levels that are unsupportable is not the way," Blakeslee said.

Steinberg pointed out that the governor in his proposal was not able to close the gap with a "cut, cut, cut-only strategy."

"We're going to have to probably cut in the magnitude of what he suggests, and then the debate is what do we do from there."