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California Lawmakers Forge Ahead With Budget Package

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(credit: AP)

(credit: AP)

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — California lawmakers are focusing on a budget package aimed at closing the state’s $26.6 billion deficit, as Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders seek out the votes needed to pass the plan’s two most divisive components.

The state Assembly and Senate on Wednesday approved billions of dollars of spending cuts, but failed to pass a bill to eliminate the state’s more than 400 redevelopment agencies or take up the Democratic governor’s plan to ask voters to approve a five-year extension of sales, income and vehicle taxes set to expire this year.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said there was a “strong possibility” the Senate would tackle those two issues Thursday — discussions he and other lawmakers said could prove contentious.

“I’m sure we’ll have a very energetic debate,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, describing the measures approved Wednesday as “relatively low-hanging fruit.”

Those eight bills authorize an estimated $7.4 billion in cuts to the CalWORKS welfare-to-work program, services for the developmentally disabled, the state’s health insurance program for the poor and other spending areas. About half of the cuts come from shifting money away from local communities to programs normally paid for by the state’s general fund.

After hours of behind-the-scenes vote wrangling, the Assembly fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to approve the redevelopment agency bill, which would save the state an additional $1.7 billion. That prevented the Senate from taking up the measure.

“These cuts showed a lot of guts,” Brown said late Wednesday, coming out of a meeting with Senate Democrats, though he added that “we’ve still got a long way to go.”

While the bills made it through the Senate with relative ease, several votes in the Assembly came down to razor-thin margins, with almost no support from Republican lawmakers.

Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey of Dana Point accused Democrats of making cuts so painful to local governments that “they will beg to have taxes increased.”

“This is not the fix we thought it would be,” she said.

Even those who voted for the measures appeared to take no pleasure in doing so.

“These cuts go deep, hurting those most in need of services and extracting a pound of flesh in payment for our economic sins from those who have the least to give,” said Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who ultimately voted for the bills.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield described the cuts as “awful,” but implored his Republican colleagues to get behind them.

“As bad as they are, they pale in comparison to the problems we face if we prolong financial instability,” the Van Nuys Democrat said.

Despite Wednesday’s gains, Brown has given no indication he has the necessary support from Republicans to reach the two-thirds vote threshold necessary to place the tax question before voters in a June special election.

Two Republicans in each house would have to approve the plan, even if every Democrat votes yes.

The state GOP is scheduled to meet this weekend in Sacramento for its spring convention, putting pressure on Republican lawmakers to stand firm on the budget or risk being ostracized by party leaders and staunch conservatives.

Dutton said he and his fellow GOP lawmakers are primarily concerned about “restoring California’s economic future,” and they remain unconvinced that the budget package will increase job growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

A Field Poll released Wednesday found that a majority of Californians support the governor’s approach of a ballot measure to decide the tax question. The poll also found that 58 percent of registered voters said they would vote to extend the tax increases, while 39 percent said they would vote to return them to previous levels.

The poll found overall support among voters for spending cuts, but a reluctance to specify which state programs should be targeted. Voters opposed cutting all but two out of 14 areas of state government spending: courts and prisons.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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