As metaphors for budget negotiations go, this one is not good.
Traditionally, as budget talks enter their final stage, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger summons lawmakers to his famous smoking tent, located in the courtyard outside the governor’s office.
But the smoking tent is gone.
Look into the governor’s courtyard, and all you’ll see is a concrete slab. Even the Astroturf that had been laid down underneath the tent has been removed. So what gives? Has the governor finally had enough schmoozing? Given up the habit? Removed the tent as the sign of a new, personal fiscal austerity?
Nope. The tent has been moved at the request of the Department of General Services, which is making some repairs to the Capitol roof. The repairs have been going on for months, closing the passageway between the sixth floor annex and the fourth floor of the old Capitol.
So, do lawmakers miss the tent? And has the demise of the smoking tent lessened the prospects of a budget deal?
“Now that the smoke is gone, we just need to get rid of the mirrors and we might get a budget deal,” said Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, who himself was never a fan of the tent, or the cigar smoke inside it.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Jeffrey Barker quipped, “The negotiations will be less intense.” See that’s a joke. In tents. Intense. Anyway, moving on…
The absence of the tent has not stopped Schwarzenegger from huddling with top advisers in his courtyard. It’s just that now, anyone in the Capitol with a view of the courtyard can chart the progress of budget negotiations (Web cam, anyone?).
Tuesday afternoon, for example, the governor and Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy were puffing away on stogies as they were being briefed by Legislative Secretary Chris Kahn and senior adviser Ana Matosantos.
In order to get out of the hot afternoon sun, the governor has set up a few chairs toward the outer edge of the courtyard, in a shaded area. But from our vantage point, it was questionable at best whether or not Kennedy and Schwarzenegger were enjoying their cigars within the confines of California law.
California law states “no public employee or member of the public shall smoke any tobacco product inside a public building, or in an outdoor area within 20 feet of a main exit, entrance, or operable window of a public building.” But as they enjoyed their Tuesday afternoon smoke, Kennedy and Schwarzenegger, who were sitting closest to the doors as they puffed away, looked to be closer than that.
It doesn’t seem like the tent would have been getting much use, anyway. Legislative budget negotiators say talks have come to a virtual standstill. Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, told his fellow Democrats not to count on a budget deal by the Democratic National Convention at the end of August.
“I have told everybody that if they want to spend one weekend or the other in Denver, go right ahead, but don’t plan to be there for the (Democratic National) Convention. I don’t see this ending for quite some time,” Perata said.
“They (Republicans) have a huge list of ‘we don’t like ‘ems,’ but they have not brought anything up. They said they want a hard spending cap. There is no proposal. They say they want to borrow, and they only come up with $3 or $4 billion to close an $8 billion gap. So, everything they want to do they have refused or failed to provide a proposal.”
Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, said Democrats were to blame for the budget delay. “As for our negotiations being at a ‘loggerhead,’ we have not had a Big 4 in two weeks. The majority party controls the agenda. We are here ready to work anytime, for as long as it takes.”
Maybe that will all change once the big tent is back.