February 21, 2009

Now, voters get their say:

Reporting from Sacramento -- State lawmakers Thursday finally ended the three-month stalemate that brought California to the brink of financial collapse -- but now it is up to voters to keep the budget package from unraveling.

The spending plan, which wipes out a nearly $42-billion projected deficit with tax hikes, deep program cuts and borrowing, hinges on $5.8 billion contained in several ballot measures that voters must approve in a special election May 19. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the package today.

There are any number of reasons voters may not cooperate. The four temporary tax hikes in the budget are substantial and the ballot proposals would prolong them. Polls show that voter disgust with the Legislature has reached all-time highs. Some well-funded special interest groups are already plotting campaigns against the measures.

"Given how disaffected voters are and how really disgusted they are, you might find all the ballot measures could get swept away," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

Voters will be asked to wrest money from mental health services, children's programs and future lottery receipts. They will be offered the opportunity to constrain future state spending -- but only if the tax hikes just passed stay in place for four years instead of two. The failure of one or more of these measures could reopen a deficit.

Lawmakers and the governor are already looking nervously toward the campaign for the measures, even as they breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the Legislature, in lockdown for a third straight day, finally passed a budget. The plan's approval halts the state's slide toward insolvency and allows officials to once again begin paying tax refunds, vendors and public assistance recipients, though those checks could be delayed several more weeks.

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