Debate for Calif lawmakers: Budget or blueberries?

Published 5:56 pm Thursday, June 11, 2009

What budget crisis?

As California faces what one official this week called a complete meltdown of state government, some lawmakers have their minds on other matters.

Like creating a blueberry commission. Or standing up for pomegranate juice. And, in what passes for health reform in the nation’s most populous state, ensuring that the name tags of medical workers are in 18-point font.

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Those are among the hundreds of bills being debated in the California Legislature as the state faces a $24.3 billion deficit and the prospect of running out of cash by late July.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged lawmakers to act swiftly so the state can pass a budget before the fiscal crisis deepens. He’s proposed eliminating health care for 1 million low-income children and the program that helps welfare recipients find work. Billions of dollars are expected to be cut from education, 5,000 state workers face layoffs and many of the others face furloughs and salary rollbacks that amount to a 15 percent pay cut.

So lawmakers’ attention to less pressing issues earned a rebuke from the Republican governor, who has backed the idea of converting the Legislature to part-time status.

“They would probably concentrate more on the serious work and not some of the bills that come down … for creating a blueberry commission and so on. There would not be time for that,” he recently told the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee.

Among the more eyebrow-raising bills pending in the state Legislature are ones that would:

— Ensure that juice sold as “pomegranate” is 100 percent pomegranate.

— Instruct 9th and 10th graders about the value of organ donation.

— Ban toy cigarette lighters.

— Require day cares to serve only healthy food to children.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a Democrat from San Francisco, is the author of the name-tag bill and another that would establish a commission to promote California’s growing blueberry industry. The commission’s $1.2 million annual budget would come from a surcharge on blueberries.

A spokeswoman for Ma declined to comment on the bills. In a written statement, Ma said the Legislature is working on measures to improve education, increase access to health care and keep jobs in the state. She did not mention blueberries.

The leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said he understands the perception that some of the bills are not as urgent as the budget crisis.

“But at the same time, this is a body of 120 members, and the members are entitled to bring forward their ideas,” said Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento. “I would hate to see the day where any leader or any system said to people, ’You can’t introduce the following idea.’ This is democracy.”

Legislative leaders said they are holding daily hearings on how to close the budget deficit, even if individual lawmakers are promoting their own bills.

They note that nearly all bills with multimillion-dollar price tags are off the table this year.

In a typical year, California lawmakers introduce about 2,800 bills and approve about a third of them, slightly ahead of the national average, said Brenda Erickson of the National Conference of State Legislatures. There also are limits: 50 bills per lawmaker per session in the Senate and 40 per lawmaker in the Assembly. That’s far short of the five-bill per lawmaker limit in Colorado, but stricter than most states, Erickson said.

How many bills Schwarzenegger will eventually sign into law is unclear. Last fall, he rejected about a third of the bills sent to him.

Time is not on the Legislature’s side. On Wednesday, state Controller John Chiang said tax revenue in May was $827 million below projections. California, he said, was “less than 50 days away from a meltdown of state government.”

Schwarzenegger could use his authority to call lawmakers into a special session that would prevent them from taking up any items unrelated to the budget. While the governor has made clear his frustration with the slow pace of negotiations, he has expressed confidence that will change as the financial deadlines draw near.

“I know they will speed up and they will take this seriously,” Schwarzenegger said.