The budget underbelly

When the Assembly gave its thumbs up to the state budget, the spending plan and its posse of come-along “trailer” bills headed immediately to the Senate. All except one, that is. And therein lies an instructive Capitol tale–one of several in the saga of the trailer bills.

A little-known bill that contains $18 million in critical funding for charter schools was approved by the Assembly but never made it out of the chamber. Like magic, it had disappeared from the public’s view. But, in fact, as of Wednesday afternoon, it was still sitting on the Assembly clerk’s desk, frozen by order of the Assembly leadership.

It was halted by an unusual parliamentary maneuver: The bill was approved, but Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, asked for reconsideration. Authors of bills typically ask for reconsideration after a bill goes down, hoping to delay final action for another vote. In this case, the opposite was true: The request for reconsideration stopped the bill in its tracks.

Like some other trailer bills, this bill–SB 92–was rewritten just before the vote after intense, closed-door maneuvering by ranking staffers. “There was no hearing, no caucus, no meeting, no nothing,” said one political strategist familiar with the issue.

Even the chairwoman of the Assembly subcommittee that deals with education finance–who eventually voted no on the bill–and other major education policy players were caught by surprise by the speed of the furtive negotiations, in which they did not participate.

Originally, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had proposed $43 million for the charter schools, intended to provide funding to help build charter-school classrooms in high-need areas. But a clerical error prompted state budget-writers to recalculate how much money they had available, and the level of funding was scaled back–not unusual in budget talks. The mistake was later discovered, but the funding was left at $18 million , at least partly because Democratic leaders favored the smaller figure.

That seemed to be the end of it. The bill appeared to be destined to be included in the budget.

But then the Assembly Democrats amended the bill to prohibit the state Board of Education from authorizing new statewide charters and renewing the statewide charters it already has approved–a critical, hot-button issue, especially in Los Angeles, where the debate is fierce over the Green Dot charter schools. Green Dot is in line to be considered for a statewide charter by the state board, but that would be blocked if SB 92 was signed into law in its present form.

Thus far, the board–whose members are appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger–has approved two statewide charters: High Tech High in San Diego and Aspire in the Bay Area. The schools, say charter-school backers, are high quality and, with a statewide charter, can open multiple campuses that draw students from across existing school-district boundaries. Thus, charter-school supporters believe the power of the statewide charter is crucial to the spread of charter-school campuses.

Just how the language curbing the board’s power got placed in a budget bill is a matter of dispute. But two Capitol sources familiar with the negotiations said it was inserted by ranking Democratic staffers at the behest of Assembly Speaker Fabian N

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