The sounds of silence: How the GOP’s soft sell almost sank the budget

There are times in politics when it is dangerous to say too much. But the lessons from the California budget this week also illustrate that sometimes it can be just as hazardous to say nothing at all.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders reached a tentative budget accord Tuesday. But in the days that followed, legislative Republicans and the governor’s office were incommunicado. That gave Democrats unfettered access to the media to shape their budget narratives in the immediate wake of the budget deal.

In the process, two budget pieces that were seemingly designed to give the Republicans some political cover evaporated entirely, and left Republican lawmakers caught between angry constituents and their negotiating partners in the Capitol.

The two budget “fig leafs,” as they were described by several Capitol sources, were in the area of cuts to local governments and corrections. Republicans wanted to postpone a vote on cuts to the corrections budget so that they didn’t appear to be voting for a budget deal that included changes to the prison system that would be politically unpopular.

Republicans also pushed for a complicated deal involving redevelopment agencies that would – in theory – leave open the possibility that some cuts to local governments would not take place.

But both of those fig leaves were blown away after the Democratic budget briefings, and the leak of some corrections budget details to the press. Still, the Republicans remained silent.

In fact, the only communication from Republicans came in the form of a pair of e-mails – one from Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, and one from Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo – that were obtained and published by Capitol Weekly.

Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Rothfeld published details of a proposed package of cuts to the state’s corrections system that threatened to derail the entire budget deal. Blakeslee accused Democrats of a “double-cross,” and threatened to blow up the entire budget deal unless something was changed.

At issue was a plan – already endorsed by Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-controlled budget conference committee – to make changes to the state’s parole and sentencing system that could reduce the prison population by as many as 27,000 inmates over time.

Blakeslee said the deal amounted to an “early release” of prisoners, and was unacceptable to Republicans in the Legislature.
By Tuesday evening, as the budget deal began to fall apart, the governor’s normally aggressive press operation remained muzzled, while a hastily called conference call from Corrections secretary Matthew Cate was aimed at gluing the deal back together.

But there was still no word from Republicans about what they wanted from a prisons deal. While it was clear that they disagreed with plans to move some inmates from prison into house arrest, change some felonies to misdemeanors and commute certain types of sentences, there was still no detail about what they did want.

By Wednesday, Democrats said they were willing to postpone the corrections budget vote until some time after this week’s scheduled budget vote. But in a bit of budget irony, now it was the Democrats standing with Gov. Schwarzenegger over a round of budget cuts, and Republicans were in the role of trying to delay or alter the proposed reductions.

That was a complete reversal of the dynamics throughout the last months of budget negotiations, when Republicans stood with Gov. Schwarzenegger, and Democrats tried to deflect cuts to various state programs.

On the local government front, Hollingsworth pushed hard for language in a final budget deal that could –theoretically – defray proposed cuts to cities and counties.

The scheme has been floating around the Capitol for years, and was folded in to the budget plan as a way to possibly stave off strong opposition to the budget deal from cities and counties. But on Wednesday, talk of the redevelopment fund Hail Mary was dismissed by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

“There’s very little likelihood of that actually going into effect,” Steinberg said Wednesday in a burst of candor, casting aside any elaborate rhetorical cover that had been constructed as part of the Big 5 negotiations.

While Democrats celebrated their ability to “save the safety net” while talking to reporters, the state is on the verge of adopting a budget that looks very similar to the one originally proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Typically, this would be a budget that many Republicans could crow about.

But this year, the silence has been deafening.

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