California’s family budget

The 14 state Senate Republicans who continue to filibuster over California's overdue budget have been called terrorists, Spartans and winners who don't know how to win. They are, in fact, members of a minority party who know how to use the rules of the game — the two-thirds vote requirement for passing a budget — to get what they want. And one of the things they want is elimination of the perpetual year-to-year deficit that has plagued the state since the dot-com bust of 2000.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has long made erasing that deficit his goal. But to get a budget he had to work with the Democrats, who control the majority of both houses in Sacramento; they refuse to allow deep cuts that will harm Californians most in need of assistance and undermine the governor's commitment to improving the state's transportation systems.

The Assembly finally passed a budget, well after the Legislature's June 15 deadline to pass it and the governor's July 15 deadline to sign it. Senate Democrats signed off on a spending plan as well. To get the (then) 15 Republicans on board, Schwarzenegger promised to veto about $700 million of spending.

That peeled off one member of the caucus, Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria. But to get to two-thirds, the governor needs one more, and so far he's not getting it.

Why not? With the promised line-item vetoes, the Republicans are getting the balanced budget they said they wanted.

But rather than pass the budget offered by Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata of Oakland and rely on the governor's vetoes, they want a budget with the cuts already in it.

And one more thing. They want to reopen what Democrats claim was an agreement over how to divvy up bond money to synchronize traffic signals. As things stands now, $150 million would go to Los Angeles, but Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine denies there was any such agreement and wants $50 million of that to be put back on the table for other areas to have a shot.

Oh, and still one more thing. One big thing. They want to block Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown from forcing local governments, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to remake their growth plans to account for greenhouse gases and the state's stated goal of bringing those emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020.

Here's where it gets a bit complicated. CEQA was a landmark environmental law signed in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who four years earlier ousted Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, father of the current attorney general, who then succeeded Reagan in 1974. Jerry Brown was a big proponent of CEQA — then. A quarter century later, as mayor of Oakland, he railed against the law for slowing down construction of housing and redevelopment of his city.

Then, last November, he was elected attorney general and this year began sending letters to governments that produced regional plans which, in Brown's view, failed to account for global warming. In one case — the plan for San Bernardino County — he sued.

Development and business groups objected, noting that the bill Schwarzenegger touts in foreign capitals as the model for combating climate change — AB 32 — doesn't really take effect until the California Air Resources Board adopts implementing regulations. Those rules will describe how carbon emissions are to be curbed, but they are not likely to be adopted until close to the statutory deadline in 2012. And it is AB 32, not CEQA, that sets the 1990 standard for 2020.

So, back to the budget and the Senate Republicans. Having won at least a promise of spending limits close to what they sought, the senators are now trying to tie their sign-off on a budget to a law that will bar Brown from suing cities, counties or anyone else to enforce carbon emissions under CEQA until AB 32 regulations are adopted.

Otherwise, according to Sen. Bob Dutton of San Bernardino County, it would be like allowing the cops to ticket you for speeding on a road where no speed limits are posted.

That comparison is more apt than Dutton realizes. It calls to mind California's Basic Speed Law: every driver knows, or should, that even without a posted limit it's illegal to drive faster than road conditions safely allow.

Brown argues that he has the power and, in fact, the obligation to sue to block carbon emissions under CEQA regardless of any regulations that have or have not passed under AB 32. Think of CEQA as the Basic Speed Law for pollutants. We know carbon causes climate change, we know we have to reduce emissions, so it makes no sense to sign off on growth plans that would keep carbon pumping into the air at the same levels seen in the pre-AB 32 era.

Otherwise, Brown says, the real heavy lifting under AB 32 won't begin until well after Schwarzenegger and most current members of the Legislature are out of office. The governor will claim the glory now without having to suffer any of the political consequences.

And who will be the governor in 2012? There is growing speculation that Brown is planning to throw his hat into the ring, again. His previous two terms won't count against him under term limits, because the two-term maximum did not take effect until after he left office. His headline-grabbing CEQA actions now may simply be part of his plan to solidify his environmental base for a 2010 run.

That prospect could only stoke the desire of conservative Republicans to defuse the attorney general as much as possible, as soon as possible. The Brown years — father and son — were the only time in the last 100 years that California Democrats managed to serve more than one term as governor.

Except, of course, for Gray Davis, who served just a sliver of his second term before the Republican Schwarzenegger took him out in the 2003 recall. And Davis, as Jerry Brown's chief of staff, was for a while almost a member of the family.

Robert Greene is a member of The Times' editorial board. Send us your thoughts at

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