LOS ANGELES (UPI) — The state budget deadlock that served as one of the major villains in California’s recall melodrama was on the verge of exiting stage left Monday, just days after the vote to boot Gov. Gray Davis out of office was officially placed on the Oct. 7 ballot.

The timing of the fiscal breakthrough in Sacramento was impeccable and promised to turn the coming recall campaign into strictly a popularity contest by removing the $38 billion budget deficit as a front-burner issue.

“I commend the Senate for approving a budget that protects K-12 education,” the embattled Davis said after the state Senate passed the package Sunday night and sent it on to the Assembly. “Compromise on this budget required difficult choices and the result is a spending plan that includes a great deal for everyone to dislike.”

While there may be plenty for a lot of people to dislike about the budget, the majority of Golden State voters will likely experience few, if any, tangible impacts from the budget, and the resulting lack of interest could take the wind from the sails of both the Davis camp and the Republican war party forming over the hill.

The budget debate in the Legislature was last seen as a stalemate between anti-tax Republicans and Democrats who vowed to hold the line on spending cuts so as not to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

The Senate’s compromise $70.8 billion budget rolls nearly $8 billion of the deficit into the 2004-2005 fiscal year, triples vehicle registration costs and other various fees, and adds another $18 billion to the coffers through borrowing from Wall Street. The plan does not raise taxes and spares education and healthcare from any major cuts, thereby satisfying the bottom-line demands of the two parties.

“We did what we had to do,” Senate Pro Tem President John Burton, D-San Francisco, told United Press International after the 27-10 vote. “We both drew lines that were basic to us and to our caucuses. Those lines weren’t crossed and everything else was up for grabs.”

The perpetual-motion campaign machine that Davis used to squeak by Bill Simon in last fall’s election was put to good use in recent months as the governor appealed repeatedly for the Legislature to put aside its differences and do what was best for the state. That display of public statesmanship was morphing more recently into a vow to protect the downtrodden from draconian cuts cooked up by the Republicans.

Just as it appeared that the recall was going to turn into a battle of brickbats between liberals and conservatives — the kind of melee the national punditry in Washington can sink their teeth into — peace broke out in Sacramento and for all practical purposes took the budget out of the mix.

California law requires a two-thirds majority vote on the budget, which requires some of the minority Republican delegation to vote along with the Democratic majority.

The mood in the capital Sunday night was mellow with both parties claiming they received what they wanted in the budget while at least knocking the $38 billion deficit back on its heels for another year.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as addressing his colleagues Sunday: “I rise in support of this budget, not because I like it — in fact, I don’t. I am going to vote for this budget because I think it’s the best we can do.”

As long as the budget isn’t a front-page issue, the recall campaign has to rely on a squabble over Davis’ record during his first term and the exasperation of the GOP challengers who will try to maintain their conservative credentials while wooing voters in urban areas who are considered liberal or at least the beneficiaries of the state’s social programs.

The Oct. 7 ballot does contain an initiative that could become a wedge issue in the recall campaign.

Proposition 54 was offered as a constitutional amendment that would basically bar state and local governments from keeping statistics on ethnic groups.

Dubbed the Racial Privacy Initiative, Prop 54 is a step toward a color-blind society; the initiative’s author, Ward Connerly, called it a move away from “racial bean counting.”

But this is California — where the GOP has been smarting since 1994 when Prop 187 tried to ban illegal immigrants from state schools and healthcare services. Immigrant activists are already casting a wary eye on Prop 54.

Connerly said last week that he was confident that California voters would see through any rabble-rousing rhetoric against his measure and accused Davis of already trying to stir up opposition.

“Until now, I have studiously avoided taking a position regarding the question of whether California Governor Gray Davis should be recalled from office and I continue to have no position,” he fumed in a statement. “I do, however, now see with greater clarity why so many Californians have lost confidence in Governor Davis as the leader of our state.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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