Thursday, February 19, 2009

Capitol Crisis

The California state legislature has been in a budget stalemate for the past eight months, but I never fully appreciated the gravity of the situation until State Senator Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) began handing out toothbrushes to his senate colleagues Tuesday morning.

One of the privileges extended to interns for State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), besides calling him "Joe", is an open invitation to the state Capitol in Sacramento, and that is where I spent my Tuesday. 

The architecture of the building itself is actually quite fascinating; for example, the Capitol "dome" is really made up of two nestled domes, and if you know the right people, you can climb a spiral staircase through the gap between them to get a 360 degree view of Sacramento. On Tuesday, 30 mph winds and driving rain prevented us from making the ascent, but I am determined to get up there someday.

But by far the most intriguing part of my day was the part we spent on the floor of the Senate, listening to lawmakers yak about the final bill in the budget package, which concerned taxes. Always a hot-button issue, the subject of taxes tends to elicit hyper-partisan behavior on both sides of the aisle.

We were seated behind the press. "Don't say anything you don't want in the LA Times," Joe said with a wink, but the reporter assured us that everything was off the record.

The debate continued. The Senate was only one Republican vote shy of the required 2/3 to pass a budget, so the discourse was more procedural than substantive, and many senators left their seats to converse with colleagues or left the room entirely.

The most memorable quotes of the afternoon require the use of a broad range of adjectives.
Sincere: "Living within our means does not guarantee a meaningful life."
Cliché: "If we don't pass this, the California dream will become the California nightmare."
Failed analogy: "California is that plane. But this is no ordinary plane. This is the - big - jumbo plane."
Oh-screw-it: "Face it, we're in this mess because we didn't fix our fiscal a** back then."

The dialogue was interrupted by a brief appearance by Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a plane in the Hudson after a run-in with a Canadian goose. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had held a ceremony honoring the captain earlier. Several senators congratulated him on his courage and presence of mind.

"From one pilot to another, thank you," said Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria). Maldonado has a reputation for being a moderate Republican, and he was the one who cast the deciding vote on Thursday's ultimate budget compromise. Unfortunately, Gloria Romero (D-East LA) felt the need to respond to his comment with, "I'm not a pilot. I don't have a plane like some of my colleagues. But as a passenger, thank you, Captain."

We ended the day with a chat with Joe, who pointed to the air mattress he was going to be sleeping on that night as an illustration of the life of a legislator. Then the omnipresent loudspeaker on the ceiling announced the start of a Democratic caucus in five minutes, and Joe headed off.

Approximately 32 hours after I left the Capitol, our state had a budget.

And because the budget is effective until mid-2010, it's the earliest one we've ever had.