Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to strike a statesman-like tone in his State of the State address this morning. Gone was the confrontational governor, who has challenged and dressed-down the Legislature in the past. And, as expected, he focused on the state budget. But the governor could not resist one small swipe at legislators, opting to hit their wallets if the budget is not passed on time.
"The $42 billion dollar deficit is a rock upon our chest and we cannot breathe until we get it off," the Republican governor said. "It doesn't make any sense to talk about education, infrastructure, water, health care reform and all these things when we have this huge budget deficit. I will talk about my vision for all of these things — and more — as soon as we get the budget done."
It was, in many ways, vintage Schwarzenegger — simultaneously conciliatory and threatening.
"The Legislature is currently in the midst of serious and good faith negotiations to resolve the crisis, negotiations that are being conducted in the knowledge we have no alternative but to find agreement," the governor said.
But even as he seemed to be salving old wounds, he could not resist a small jab, calling for lawmakers to lose their pay for every day the budget is late.
"You have to admit, it is a brilliant idea," the governor said, adding that he, too, would give up his paycheck. There was silence in the Assembly as he delivered his proposal. The notion of cutting lawmakers' pay if the Democrast-controlled Legislature fails to approve a budget by the constitutional June 15th deadline is not new: The idea, in one form or another, has often been floated in the Capitol, usually by Republicans, for decades.
Budgets require two-thirds votes in each house. Democrats control both houses but lack the two-thirds majorities, which means they must court GOP lawmakers to get a budget through.
The pay-cut was about the extent of specific proposals in Thursday's address. The speech was missing a policy or political road map for the year, and instead focused on now-familiar details of the state's ongoing fiscal woes.
He did seem to lay the groundwork for a future push structural budget reform, although he gave no specifics. Some of those changes to the budget process are among the things already being discussed — and are among the top Republican priorities — in the ongoing budget neogotiations.
Specifically, Republicans are pushing for a cap on state spending. Democrats have articulated opposition to that idea.
For Schwarzenegger, the tone of the speech reflects the serious of the state's budget crisis. But it also is an important stylistic change. Personality quarrels have been among the many obstacles to reaching a state budget crisis.
Democratic leaders sounded an upbeat tone after the speech. But they, too, were short on specifics. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said they were troubled by the Governor's "old" proposal to cut off pay to legislators and their staffs when the budget is late, saying it scapegoats "hard-working people."
Steinberg said the Democrats' $18 million deficit reduction plan, which sought to do an end-run around the two-thirds vote requirement for passing a budget, "got the Republicans attention" enough to restart negotiations. Then, noting that they would essentially be passing a two year budget—last year's budget as well as the 2009-2010—he got in what qualifies as a pretty good laugh line these days.
"When we get this agreement done in the next few weeks, we will have accomplished the earliest budget in the history of California," Steinberg said.