Legislators Engage in "Kabuki" Budget Drama

State legislators have to pass a budget by midnight this Friday. And surprise, surprise, the Democrats and the Republicans don't see eye to eye. To reach an agreement, each side will use an arsenal of legislative tactics: debate, caucusing, back channels, horse trading, bluffing... That's how legislators pass laws and make policy. Some taxpayers call it a waste of money. The Governor of California calls it high drama. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

[Sound of Kabuki performance singing in Japanese]

Julie Small: In Japanese Kabuki theatre, actors move using highly stylized gestures. They wear heavy make up and costumes and slowly intone lyrics to music. That may be one reason the spectacle can last up to eight hours. Governor Schwarzenegger says it's a lot like the drama playing now in the state legislature.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: I think that certain agreements and compromises can be made very quickly, but that's not the way it happens in this building – even though it's laid out for you and it's very clear. But I think that everyone needs to go through their little dramas and show their constituents know that they're fighting for them. And they have to negotiate and renegotiate – I call that "the Kabuki."

Small: But when it comes to the budget this year, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata says the Governor should consider his part in the play.

Senator Don Perata: The governor's very fond of saying this is part of the Kabuki and we usually get accused of being the people who dance the Kabuki. And in this instance I think he's our dancing partner and he's leading, and I don't want you to make any more of that than you will... (audience laughs) But I ain't having any of it!

Small: The "it" is the Governor's proposal to pay off more than $1 billion in debt – one decade early. To come up with the cash, he wants to sell off EdFund – the state's student loan underwriter. He also wants to cut a deal with Indian gaming tribes letting operators add more slot machines in exchange for a cut of the profits.

He wants to cut spending on the disabled, families on welfare and seniors. He also wants to take more than $1 billion out of public transportation. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez called the Governor's budget "mean-spirited." But, he says, that wasn't for dramatic effect.

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez: The governor wants to pay Wall Street and do it on the backs of the poor and the disabled. It just doesn't happen that way. Those are not the values of the people in California. Some folks might think that's Kabuki. I think that's reality. (Laughs). So there we go...

Assemblyman Mike Villines: Y'know he always calls it "Kabuki." I didn't even know what that was until he started saying that. I'm from Fresno! I'd never heard that in my life.

Small: Assembly minority leader Mike Villines says now that he knows what the Governor means, he can see the Kabuki in play, especially when lawmakers are negotiating a deal.

Villines: You know you always position yourself very strong in one place or another. So that if you can get to discussions you come to a spot that makes sense for both. If you were for example to say well, you know, I give on this, this, and this. Well then you've already given on it. It's already taken away.

Small: But Villines says a lot of what the Governor calls "Kabuki" is people sticking to their principles. Villines says Republicans want deeper cuts than the ones the Governor proposed. And instead of a 1% growth in the budget, they'd like to freeze state spending. That's no act.

Villines: I mean there's certain things we wouldn't bend on. So when you hear a Republican say, for example, I will not vote on tax increase in any form. That's not Kabuki, that's not setting up a discussion, that's a fact. Republicans lose their next election if they vote for a tax increase and we're not willing to do it. And plenty of taxes are coming in already. That's a spending issue.

Small: Democrats hold a majority in both houses but they must win a two-thirds majority to pass a budget bill. So they have to work with Republicans. Republicans know that. And they'll do their best to upstage the principal players. Of course they can't get everything they want. No one can. Mike Villines has a bottom line. What exactly, he won't say. That's not written in the script.

[Sound of Kabuki chanting, drums]