California's last chief executive loved the ticking budget clock he placed outside his Capitol office -- one that added dollar after dollar for every second the Legislature was late in delivering a state spending plan.
There's no actual clock these days, but if there was it would be ticking rapidly toward zero next Friday night, when legislators forfeit their pay if they don't send a budget to Gov. Jerry Brown.
The state Senate's budget committee met for about three hours Thursday afternoon to begin reviewing budget options and to harmonize their own spending priorities with those identified so far in the Assembly. Legislators say they do not expect to convene a budget conference committee this year -- which would be the first time in at least 15 years without a gathering of the two houses for reconciling their work into a single fiscal plan.
But the public hearings aren't the big show; the private negotiations between Democrats is where the real action is, negotiations over how to find close to $2 billion in budget solutions to replace gubernatorial proposals that Dems oppose.
While the solutions aren't yet known, the list of cuts legislative leaders appear poised to reject is hardly secret: Brown's cuts to the welfare-to-work program CalWorks, his cut to in-home support services, and his cut in funding for college financial aid through Cal Grants.
"We want to soften the edges of what the governor has proposed," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, after Thursday's hearing.
How Democrats find $2 billion in additional solutions is the first challenge. Key areas reportedly being examined include the interplay between local property tax dollars that used to go to redevelopment agencies (RDAs were dissolved last year), and whether to put $1 billion into a budget reserve as proposed by Brown.
But whether the governor would agree to those kinds of solutions remains an open question. So, too, is who in this budget fight will have the upper hand: legislative Democrats, who may think Brown needs an on-time budget deal to help convince voters -- in advance of November's tax initiative vote -- that government is working hard... or the governor, who may believe there's no political downside to vetoing (as he did in 2011) a legislative budget package that he called a gimmicky mess.
Whatever happens, we won't see it until next week. And neither will legislative Republicans, relegated to spectators after 2010's Proposition 25 allowed non-tax increase budgets to be passed by simple majority votes in each house of the Legislature.
State Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Redlands, decried on Thursday what he called "secret meetings" of Democrats to hash out the remaining parts of a budget package. He was told that Democrats hope to have a budget bill in print for at least 48 hours before a vote next week, with the operative word in that pledge being "hope."
To keep that promise, Democrats would have to wrap up their work on a budget 'Plan B' in just three days of next week; just after Thursday's budget work -- which included approval of a plan to create new co-pay rules for Medi-Cal recipients -- legislators adjourned for the week.
Next week will undoubtedly be interesting. The clock is ticking.