Class dismissed!

The hallowed halls of the California state Legislature were sounding hollow last Friday afternoon. With just days before the constitutional deadline for a new budget, the place had the empty look of a high-school campus a couple days into the summer break. A few staffers were walking around with file folders, but other than that, school was out.

Speaker Herb Wesson could have called the conference committee on the budget into session, but it would have been a long-distance call. He was down in Southern California attending to something obviously more pressing than more arguments regarding the budget standoff. Nobody, that I could see, was even attempting to break the stalemate in Sacramento. While legislative staffers were lining up loans to cover a threatened paycheck stoppage, Governor Gray Davis was also down in Los Angeles doing some politicking, apparently trying to stem the recall tide. He did venture back to Sac on Saturday to blame the GOP for the impasse. I recommend that Davis show some backbone and grab the leading budget knuckleheads, throw them into a room and lock the door: No expensive dinners at Chops, drinks at Simon’s or per diem for you!

I actually would have preferred that the legislators put in some overtime last weekend voluntarily, perhaps in counseling sessions devoted to communication and cooperation. They might remember that they’re elected to work for the well-being of the citizens of the state, not to dig their heels in and see who blinks first.

They certainly were able to run through hundreds of bills during the past couple of months. Thanks to committee chairs like Darrell Steinberg, that work gets done (see “The velvet gavel,”).

But the big one looms, and the state could start shutting down in July. It will take Steinberg and others to convince a few Republicans to jump from the no-tax ship and get on with it. If some consensus isn’t reached, it could be “class dismissed” when voters go to the polls next.