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Major debates await lawmakers including high speed rail bonds

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POSTED April 8, 2012 6:28 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Lawmakers will return from their spring recess on Monday to face fast-approaching deadlines for several critical decisions, including whether to make deeper cuts to social welfare programs, reform the public employee pension system and approve borrowing for a high-speed rail system.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to ask lawmakers in the coming weeks to appropriate $2.3 billion in voter-approved bonds to build the nation's first high-speed rail system. If the Legislature approves the borrowing, construction could begin later this year.

The project stalled last fall after a draft business plan said the project's cost had more than doubled, from $45 billion to $98 billion. A revised plan released last week gave a new price tag of $68.4 billion, a cost Brown and other high-speed rail backers hope will be more palatable to lawmakers.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he is eager to begin debating the revised plan.

"I would like to move forward," he said. "I think the vision is very, very important. The substance of the business plans, the facts, are going to dictate the sound decision here."

Lawmakers also will start debating their budget options in earnest with the state facing a $9.2 billion deficit. Democrats have balked at Brown's initial proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which calls for billions more in social service cuts.

Brown's $92.5 billion general fund budget, released in in January, rolls back spending for social services, including Medi-Cal and the welfare-to-work program known as CalWorks.

Democrats are promising to block many of the cuts and already have rejected some of them in committee hearings.

While the Legislature is likely to reject some of Brown's budget proposals, including cuts to subsidized childcare, lawmakers will have to find other ways to reduce spending, said Sen. Mark Leno, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

"I doubt that we would accept his cuts as they've been proposed to us, but we'll have to be making deep, unpleasant cuts one way or the other. The budget will be balanced," said Leno, D-San Francisco.

Budget leaders plan to put off most of these decisions until the governor presents his revised spending plan in May, an update that will be based on the latest tax revenue. They are hoping the economy is recovering at a fast enough pace to shrink the deficit.

Democrats deny that they are trying to delay tough choices until after the June 5 primary, when many lawmakers will be seeking re-election or will run for seats in Congress or the other legislative house. Candidates are grappling with changed political dynamics this year, including a new primary system and independently drawn legislative boundaries.

Leno said it's likely that at least some budget bills will be taken up before the primary because of the June 15 deadline for the Legislature to approve a budget.

"It is quite possible there could be some tough votes before Election Day; there's just no getting around it," he said.

Brown's budget includes automatic cuts to public schools and social services if voters reject his tax-hike initiative, which will be on the November ballot if he meets the deadline for collecting petition signatures.

Republicans have said the governor intentionally targeted popular programs in his trigger cuts to frighten voters into approving a higher sales tax and higher income taxes on those making $250,000 a year or more.

"They're designed and targeted for maximum political effect to dispose people to vote for the taxes," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. "It's a cynical ploy."

Republicans offered their own budget plan before the Legislature adjourned, which they said safeguards schools without relying on the tax increases.

The two parties already are clashing over pension reform.

Brown developed a 12-point plan to revamp the state's public employee pension system, which has at least $140 billion in unfunded liabilities.

A legislative conference committee has started analyzing the proposal, but Democratic leaders have indicated they are unwilling to accept the plan as it stands. Unions, who support Democrats during campaign season, are opposed to many of Brown's proposals, such as creating a hybrid plan that includes a 401(k)-style account.

Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod said she agrees that some pension reforms are necessary, but said some elements of the governor's plan go too far. That includes his proposal to raise the retirement age for most new public employees to 67, she said.

"We're going to reach a compromise probably somewhere in the middle," said Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, a co-chairwoman of the Senate pension committee.

Republicans have embraced Brown's plan and introduced legislation in February that duplicates it in its entirety.

In addition to the budget, pension and high-speed rail debates, the Legislature also will weigh several high-profile bills in the coming months.

Among those are bills that would make it easier to sell handmade food commercially, establish new specialized license plates to benefit California causes, and prohibit the state from paying workers a higher salary than the governor's.

Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would increase penalties for teachers who seduce or molest their students, even if the students are older than 18.

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