“How many competing budget plans do you expect to see?” the Weekly asked Governor Gray Davis late last week. The governor held up his right hand, his forefinger touching his thumb and making “zero.” What about the Latino Legislative Caucus and its plan to develop an alternative budget? he was asked. “I don‘t think the Latino Caucus will be able to agree on a budget,” he replied. “I’m sure the Republicans won‘t come up with one; they haven’t as long as I‘ve been governor. The easier part is knowing what you don’t like in a budget. There‘s a lot I don’t like in my own. The harder part is doing difficult things to save what you like.”

Not that Davis is exactly sitting pretty. Are you out of the woods if there are no competing budget plans? Davis grimaced. “Hardly,” he replied. “There are months of battles ahead. The Latino Caucus will be a major force.”

Nevertheless, Davis‘ prediction was borne out, at least so far. Last week, at the annual Latino leadership reception, the caucus chairman, L.A. Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, took up Davis’ challenge to come up with a budget of its own. But over the weekend the caucus came up short of that at its retreat in San Francisco.

Rather than an alternative budget, the Latino Legislative Caucus produced what one adviser calls a “statement of budget alternatives,” titled “Recalculating Our Strategy.” As such, it‘s an affirmation of principle defending “the poor, aged and infirm” and a call to recognize the wealth of the world’s fifth largest economy in expanding the debate beyond “inevitable” cuts. But it doesn‘t specify where the money would come from.

While the caucus has always been greatly influenced by L.A.-area liberal members, its rapid expansion in recent years — members now make up over a fifth of the entire Legislature — has added more moderate members as it moves out of the urban cores. “We are not a monolith,” notes Firebaugh. L.A. Senator Gil Cedillo is a sharp critic of most of the Davis budget and a champion of an alternative budget. He chairs the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee. Another caucus member, La Puente’s Ed Chavez, chairs the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. But the San Gabriel Valley is more moderate than L.A.‘s urban core, and Chavez is not as enthusiastic about new taxes as Cedillo.

“Some of the newer members were freaked that the caucus would be seen as this big tax-and-spend institution,” says one insider. “So we’re going with more of a low-ball approach.” (That‘s pol-speak for going for what you want with less fanfare, if any.) Caucus members, staff and advisers from the California Budget Project have developed a menu of tax and fee increases that could raise as much as $30 billion. “This menu was eye-opening, startling, for some of the members. But we were never going to do all that,” says the insider.

One caucus adviser had anticipated early this month that the group would likely agree on cuts but have trouble agreeing on which new taxes and fee increases to support. But there was disagreement on cuts as well, with San Jose Assemblyman Manny Diaz balking at suggested cuts in state aid to local redevelopment projects. San Jose has one of the largest redevelopment projects in the state.

“Everyone has an ox in this deal,” says a veteran Democratic political strategist. “This is not the same thing as the caucus pushing Davis to sign the farm-workers bill and punishing him for not signing the driver’s-license bill.” (The farm-workers bill, by Senate President pro tem John Burton of San Francisco, requires binding mediation and arbitration for scores of growers who won‘t negotiate with the United Farm Workers. The driver’s-license bill, by Cedillo, would have allowed undocumented workers to obtain California driver‘s licenses. The caucus pulled its endorsement of Davis for his veto of the Cedillo bill.) “Those were relatively simple moral issues for the Latino community,” he says.

That said, Davis almost certainly expects to be forced to support additional revenue sources by Latino Caucus leaders and others. For example, he all but invites a hike in the vehicle-license fee, saying he opposes it now — after proposing it last year, when the crisis was far less severe — because some of it would go to local governments who “should share in the pain.” (They’re already strapped, as he well knows.) And he says he‘ll entertain all manner of other revenue increases. So Latino Caucus leaders still have a major hand to play, though apparently not the highly dramatic one they had intended.

LA Weekly