Budget fixes cut huge rift

Harm seen if measures approved, but 'more trauma' for state if not

April 26, 2009 

"Rock-ribbed" could describe Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini's opposition to new taxes and his credentials in the Republican Party.

But a historic state deficit has DeMartini breaking from the state GOP to support the budget-fixing ballot measures that voters will see in next month's special election, including one that would temporarily extend a sales tax increase.

"The deficit is so big that the Republicans and Democrats have to look at a permanent solution," he said. "You can't cut your way out of this mess and you can't tax your way out of this, either."

Proposition 1A is the main event on the May 19 ballot. It forces the state to save money in flush years, creating the sort of reserves that could help California ease the pain in down times.

The measure extends a 1 percent sales tax increase for an additional two years. It's a deal meant to give conservatives the spending caps they've wanted and provide Democrats more revenue to sustain popular programs amid a recession.

DeMartini's take is common among the measure's supporters. They say it's a bad time to allow a tax increase, but the alternative is much worse.

"I'm holding my nose and supporting this because I don't think the state of California or local government can handle any more trauma this year," said Turlock Mayor John Lazar, a Democrat.

Four other ballot measures would allow the state to raise more money from the lottery, guarantee $9.3 billion in education funding, and borrow cash from mental health and children's programs. A fifth, Proposition 1F, prevents lawmakers from getting pay raises when the state budget runs a deficit.

If the measures fail, the Legislature will have to head back to the bargaining table.

More trouble for cities?

Local government leaders fear that means the state would take more cash from their coffers, leading to even steeper cuts in city and county services.

Modesto is bracing for a $12 million to $15 million spending cut this summer. Stanislaus County faces a $34 million shortfall.

"If (voters) don't pass these measures, they're really going to see desperate measures being taken because there is no way for the Legislature to make up this deficit," said Stephen Qualls, a Central Valley representative for the League of California Cities.

Republican opponents to the ballot measures say it's past time for lawmakers to make hard choices on spending. They contend the sales tax increase does more harm than good.

"Our state government finally needs to make the changes necessary to not spend more than we take in," said Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater. He has submitted proposals to force the state to sell surplus property and shut a waste oversight board.

Labor groups, such as the California Federation of Teachers and the Service Employee International Union, have rallied to block Proposition 1A because they oppose its spending caps, forming an unlikely alliance with Republicans.

Another split: The California Teachers Association, the primary teacher's union in the state, supports the ballot measures.

"We've made drastic cuts," said Meghan Gowans, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association, which supports the ballot measures. "Everything from salary cuts to cuts in services that we deliver. I just can't imagine having to come back and having to make additional cuts."

Allies no longer

Other usual allies likewise are splintered over the propositions.

Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, helped negotiate the state budget and the ballot measures. He contends conservatives made gains in the compromise by getting the spending cap before voters, but his stance cost him his position as leader of the Senate Republican caucus.

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, is backing the measures because of the budget reserves Proposition 1A would create.

"For the little bit of short-term harm it's going to cause, for the long term this is a homerun," he told The Fresno Bee this week.

His brother, Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, hasn't taken a position on the ballot measures.

Joan Clendenin, vice chairwoman of Stanislaus County's Republican Central Committee, normally sees eye to eye with Cogdill and Tom Berryhill. She's not with them on the ballot measures, though.

"These propositions are bad policy," she said. "The alternative is just as bad. I'd rather stay with the status quo than possibly make things worse."

To some, the ballot measures are the best shot at keeping the status quo.

"Nobody wins out of this, and it's the type of budget where there can be no winners," said Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh. "I think it's the best of a lot of bad choices."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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