Slow motion

A bipartisan group of lawmakers frustrated by inaction on the budget may pitch its own plan

Democrat Joe Canciamilla, left, and Republican Keith Richman can’t stand that members of their respective parties won’t work together on the budget.

Democrat Joe Canciamilla, left, and Republican Keith Richman can’t stand that members of their respective parties won’t work together on the budget.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Assemblymen Keith Richman and Joe Canciamilla are friends, which is notable only because it may help the state avert a nasty budget showdown this summer.

Richman, a Northridge Republican and physician, and Canciamilla, a Pittsburg Democrat who’s a lawyer and funeral-home owner, got to know one another while working together during the energy crisis. Last year, they co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to set aside state funds for infrastructure upgrades that will go to voters next year.

“We can talk,” Richman said.

What they talked about when the legislative session got under way was their mutual disgust with the way the budget calamity had barely registered as a priority with colleagues increasingly dedicated to intractable ideological stances. The frustrated pair, both considered moderates, could see in December and January that neither side was willing to recognize the urgency of the problem.

Canciamilla said he’s frustrated daily that many assemblymembers on both sides aren’t taking the budget situation seriously, part of a broader frustration for him about how the Legislature works.

“Most members are in denial about the severity of the budget problem, and most of them aren’t really coming to grips with what a difficult predicament we’re in,” Canciamilla said. “I think their way of coping with it has been to focus on resolutions and just basically silliness, things that waste time, their own bills and their own personal efforts.”

Richman approached Canciamilla about forming a bipartisan group. Canciamilla agreed, and in early February, the two started meeting with a handful of other like-minded lawmakers from both sides. The group grew, went public and initially was regarded with some skepticism—especially on the Republican side. Sources on both sides of the aisle said that group members assured their skeptical leadership that the group wasn’t meant as a coup.

The group’s ideas gained quick acceptance when leadership acted on some of its suggestions. Richman even brought Canciamilla into a Republican budget-group meeting to show him a plan they were drafting.

Now, with the budget grabbing attention again, the group continues to meet, and it may play an even bigger role in crafting a budget on time.

Canciamilla said members are still focusing on driving the budget debate in their respective caucuses, but if both sides can’t agree, the group will put out its own plan if there isn’t a viable one on the table by the June 15 constitutional deadline.

And by “plan,” Canciamilla means a real budget. “It wouldn’t be just a list of cuts or a list of alternative proposals. I think that it would be a goal, at least from my standpoint, to come up with a budget that’s a full, complete and operational budget that the members could look at, comment on and possibly vote on.”

The prospect that the bipartisan group could ride to the rescue with a budget plan and the votes to back it up might make the effort pay off, but running around as a secret coalition isn’t without risk—especially for Republicans.

Republicans tend to regard moderate members of their party as latent tax hikers. In the past, rebellious Republicans who crossed over to support budgets with taxes have been kicked out of their caucuses or targeted—and beaten—in the next primary. Richman has walked close to the line before. During last year’s budget stalemate, he was the last of four Assembly Republicans who crossed over to pass a budget that included new taxes (none of the other three is still in office). Richman said he only voted aye on the floor after two-thirds of his caucus voted in favor of letting him do so because it was the best deal they could get out of Democrats.

Still, flirting with Democrats raises the stakes for Richman, who has talked about running for statewide offices like lieutenant governor or treasurer when he is termed out in 2006.

“This is the sort of thing that would present a problem for him in a primary,” Republican Party consultant Dan Schnur said of the group. But until it’s clear what the group will fight for, Schnur added, it’s hard to say what kind of repercussions members may face.

The bipartisan coalition had only met a few times when the Los Angeles Times revealed the group’s existence. After the news broke, all 12 members called a press conference to go public with their frustrations and issue a public challenge asking the leadership on both sides, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Minority Leader Dave Cox, to get cracking on a bipartisan solution. “The traditional method of preparing a budget will not work this year,” the group wrote in a letter. “The Legislature’s work must begin immediately.”

Sensing danger, Republican Bob Pacheco bailed out of the group as soon as the news broke, saying he wouldn’t support tax hikes. Remaining members were Democrats John Dutra, Lois Wolk, Lou Correa, Patty Berg, Alan Lowenthal and Gloria Negrete McLeod, and Republicans Tom Harman, Lynn Daucher and Pat Bates.

For their efforts to cooperate, Harman, Daucher and Bates—all from anti-tax Orange County—promptly were rewarded with a spanking by The Orange County Register. In an editorial under the headline “Bipartisan tax delusions,” the paper asked why the trio didn’t understand that “bipartisanship in Sacramento terms means that Republicans must cave on their ‘no higher taxes’ pledge.” Not so, the three wrote in a letter to the editor.

The group did make some progress right away. Wesson honored the group’s requests to get policy committees and budget committees together and to set all non-budget business aside for one week.

Ironically, the group that quickly had been labeled as a vehicle for compromise on taxes played a role in crafting the Assembly Republicans’ first big taxless-budget announcement in late April.

One of the ideas that the bipartisan group’s members had been tossing out was a plan to roll over some of the shortfall by repaying it over a number of years. “We’d broached that idea early on in the bipartisan group, and then we subsequently brought financial advisers in and talked about that, and we’d been leading with that idea,” Richman said.

To get specifics on pulling off something like that, the group brought in some of the same bond agencies that helped Orange County bond itself out of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s.

Richman and Harman, whom Cox assigned to a nine-member budget working group, brought the idea to the Republican caucus.

“The bipartisan group started that plan,” Harman said. “We called the bond guys.”

A week before going public, the Republican working group also took the unusual step of bringing Canciamilla into a closed-door meeting and briefing him on its proposal. It was, Richman said, a way of demonstrating that they were making a good-faith effort. “We asked him to keep the specific details in confidence. We trusted him, but we wanted him to be able to verify that we were developing a budget that was fiscally sound and was compassionate and one that could be used as a framework or a solution.”

Days later, on April 29, Cox stood in front of reporters boasting that Republicans finally had cooked up their own complete budget plan that didn’t raise taxes. The cornerstone of it was a plan to roll over a $10 billion slice of deficit and pay it off over five years.

Harman, still annoyed about being “attacked by the Register for even talking to the Democrats,” said the breakthrough has him “encouraged that this can be done without tax increases.”

But while Canciamilla praised Republicans for putting out a plan that included some serious, hard-to-swallow concessions, he was less enthusiastic about his own party’s plan to borrow billions from a pension fund for state workers. Canciamilla abstained on the pension-raid vote.

After Republicans announced their plan, the bipartisan group continued to meet with financial firms and bond-rating agencies.

By May, the group’s weekly meetings were attracting as many as 16 regulars, but members do their best to keep quiet about what they’re doing.

“One agreement is that what’s discussed is confidential,” said Democrat John Laird, one of the new members. In addition, group members generally are keeping their own staffers out of the meetings and in the dark about where the group may go next. If word leaks out about a direction the group may take, it could dissolve any progress the group makes because members constantly would have to worry that any ideas they tossed out would be made public.

Although the idea of a bipartisan group getting together may not be new, Canciamilla and Richman said the need for one is. They and other group members blame term limits and redistricting.

“With term limits in combination with redistricting, we’ve set ourselves up where the political extremes are driving the political debate,” Richman said. “As soon as somebody comes here to the Capitol as a member of the Assembly, oftentimes, they’re looking at what Senate seat they’re going to run for.”

Because redistricting drew districts as safe seats, Richman said, races are won and lost in the primary, which makes lawmakers fear they’ll be outflanked on either the far right or far left, and that doesn’t make for a constructive work environment. “When you have a $30 billion deficit, it’s tough to get to a solution where one side is saying, ‘No spending reductions,’ and the other side is saying, ‘No tax increases.’”

Lowenthal, a Democrat who’s another newer member, said he sees the group’s mission as one that sells a bipartisan solution to others who may not want to hear it. “The effectiveness of the group will be getting [members] to move their own caucus,” he said.

That approach may be more necessary this year, when Democrats won’t be able to pick off a couple rebel Republicans as they have in years past. Republicans gained two more seats in the lower house this session, and Republicans say Cox has a tighter grip on his flock.

Accordingly, Richman said, he sees the budget winning approval by bypassing the ideologues on both sides with a “bipartisan solution that involves 20 or 25 Republicans and 30 or 35 Democrats.”

While they’re working behind closed doors, both Canciamilla and Richman are quick to point out that they’re not renegades. Rather, they both keep in touch with leadership and reiterate that the two leaders will be the ones who negotiate any deals.

But even if the budget problems were magically solved overnight, Canciamilla said he thinks the group would continue meeting on other issues, if only to keep the lines of communication open.

“The members that are more representative of the broader population in the middle ground are going to have to start working more tightly together. This may represent the beginnings of an effort like that.”