CALIFORNIA BIG FIVE KEEP TALKS SECRET FOR FEAR OF DOOMING BUDGET DEAL

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State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco walks to a meeting
of the Democratic caucus at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Even with a budget vote possibly just days away, few legislators
have heard details of the plan under discussion in secret meetings
of the Big Five.

BY KEVIN YAMAMURA

Five Californians are trying to solve the state’s budget crisis, in part by keeping the other 38 million residents in the dark.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders have continued their negotiations behind closed doors for weeks, bypassing open legislative committees and offering the outside world few details as a precondition of their talks.

They fear special interests will mobilize on every proposal they hear about, ramp up pressure on lawmakers and prevent any possibility of reaching a deal that could secure enough votes.

“Whether it’s education or labor or any of the other groups, when we get wind of something that has significant jeopardy for us, we fight against it,” said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for hundreds of California school districts. “It’s a (lobbying) system set up to defeat the latest idea that’s been hatched, which makes it that much harder to get a solution.”

Leaders have yet to announce they have solved the state’s $40 billion deficit, despite earlier pledges to reach agreement by Feb. 1. Meanwhile, state Controller John Chiang has stopped paying some bills, and Standard & Poor’s downgraded California’s general obligation bond rating Tuesday from A+ to A, the lowest in the nation.

When they do reach a deal, legislative leaders intend to hide it as long as they can until a floor vote, for fear that lobbyists may undermine the agreement by persuading key legislators to vote against it.

Interest groups showed last month why state leaders have tried to keep details under wraps:

• Some GOP legislators said they were open to voting for some taxes in exchange for business-friendly changes, setting off alarms among anti-tax groups and conservative talk-show hosts John and Ken at KFI-AM in Los Angeles. The hosts illustrated the lawmakers on their Web site as part of their “Heads on a Stick” campaign.

• Fearful that Democrats were willing to ease workplace laws to obtain GOP votes for taxes, labor leaders threatened last week to consider a recall against legislators who voted against their interests.

• Environmentalists believed Democrats and Schwarzenegger were planning to roll back several air and greenhouse-gas regulations to obtain Republican votes, so they took their case public to pressure their Capitol allies.

The California Labor Federation convened a briefing with nearly 40 Democratic lawmakers Monday, said Art Pulaski, the group’s executive secretary-treasurer, to discuss the budget in a frank conversation.

“This was not about putting pressure on lawmakers,” he said. “We were merely communicating what the issues are for working families.”

The increased secrecy behind this year’s “Big Five” leadership negotiations has made interest groups nervous and has alarmed open-government proponents.

“The thought that to be able to solve this you have to ram it down members’ throats just to lock something up before a constituency finds it outrageous is evidence of how bad the process has gotten,” said Terry Francke of Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor has been transparent about his budget ideas.

“The governor has publicly proposed seven budgets this year, and his priorities in the negotiations have been clear to the public,” McLear said. “Before any deal is enacted, it will be debated publicly on the floor of the Legislature.”

In normal years, state lawmakers hold budget committee hearings to examine the governor’s proposal and discuss possible cuts and taxes in public light before meeting in private. This year, they dispensed with hearings, and few legislators have seen details yet.

Senate Democrats emerged from a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday saying Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, had been purposely vague.

“Once they’ve agreed upon something, we’ll get a full presentation, hopefully later in the week,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, a clean-air advocate, said he wasn’t too concerned that legislators were not being fully briefed because “we’ve all known for months what the four legs of the budget deal are.”

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But Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado criticized the process.

“What I don’t appreciate is the Big Five is meeting and we’re getting zero information out of it,” Maldonado said. “My constituents are asking me daily what is happening, and my response is we’re waiting on the Big Five.”

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he has never supported the Big Five process. He said that groups such as his have not had the opportunity to testify against tax proposals or for spending cuts, for instance.

“It seems to me that when you’re talking about the magnitude of issues that are being discussed in this cash flow crisis, it ought to be done in public so people have a really good handle of what’s going on,” Coupal said. “At least give status reports or something.”

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