The Budget Vote

California is one state Senate vote away from having a balanced budget through what's left of this year, and 2009-2010 as well. Though how that vote will come is still playing out, and it seems likely to happen sooner rather than later.

This is a good thing. For too long, California's uncertain finances have wreaked havoc on people who work for the state, and those who depend on state services.

For state residents who don't fall into this category, the state's fiscal woes had a more dislocated effect, coming as they do on top (and partly because) of a housing meltdown and job market deflation. The combined headlines might make us longtime Californians, normally smug this time of year because of cold weather elsewhere, a bit more modest. (Did I mention a drought, too?)

But the caveat for the budget's final creation is one that should alarm state government watchers who ponder the long-term picture.

Chief among this is the precedent Sacramento lawmakers have set: Budget by wish list.

The first came when legislative Democratic leadership, in the majority party, agreed to a shopping list of policy changes from their Republican counterparts.

That there was haggling over such topics like spending cuts and new taxes was to be expected -- these are critical issues that are part of every budget discussion, and they took on greater significance this year.

But the deal both sides agreed on -- mind you, just to have an agreement that could be taken to the full membership, not necessarily a final one -- involved much more.

Republicans, who hold effective veto power with a two-thirds vote requiring at least a few of them to cross party lines, managed to get other goodies in that agreement as well.

They include the spending cap proposal for voters and rollbacks on environmental law to speed along construction projects.

Such provisions have been long sought-after goals of California Republicans, and they have merit for discussion. But they are only tangentially related to the state's finances. And for someone who points out that the state's lack of a spending cap makes its finances more unwieldy, it should be noted that a little over three years ago, voters were given the chance to enact such a cap, and decided against it.

Nonetheless, that was the agreement that put the package before the full state Senate and Assembly.

Reason being, there weren't enough Republican votes in the Senate for passage. That was even though the Republican leadership had loaded the measure up with prime-cut steaks for its red meat caucus.

Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), a moderate, said he couldn't be one of the three critical GOP votes for the budget's passage. That is, unless Democrats took a look at his personal wish list. Some of which had to do with the budget. Some of which did not.

Democrats agreed to do so, and ultimately, it's likely that Maldonado will be the needed vote for passage. But the precedent set here is worrisome.

Most years, passing the budget is a difficult process, though this year may dwarf them all. And giving a legislator - or a caucus - its druthers in return for votes could bespeak future troubles.

Legislators, by virtue of being both term limited and increasingly partisan, sometimes have interests and desires different from the state's residents as a whole. Not necessarily worse, but different.

If every potentially recalcitrant legislator can submit their own wish list in order to guarantee a budget vote, a state already known for slow government could theoretically get slower, something like sloth to snail speed.

Is there a better way? Willie Brown, for one, might suggest that there is.

During a previous budget stall, Brown, in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, said as Assembly Speaker, he had a sure-fire method to get a needed vote during a protracted budget standoff.

Go to the legislator, he said, and offer up some local benefits to smooth the way. Some police funding here, a community center grant there.

Horse-trading? Unethical? Poor spending choice? Perhaps, all three.

But better those, at relatively small amounts, than giving government reform options to every lawmaker who's willing to get married to a budget deal, but not without a pre-nup.