SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers' constitutional deadline to pass a state budget was ignored — again.
Only once in the past two decades has the deadline been met, last year, but that spending plan was quickly unraveled by the economy and needed more than $20 billion in fixes.
California finds itself sinking again in red ink, a projected $19.1 billion, and no compromise is in sight between Democrats intent on raising billions in revenue and Republicans adamantly opposed.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, through a spokesman, expressed a sense of urgency about Tuesday's missed deadline.
"Our deficit grows every day we don't act, and the governor has been clear that the Legislature's inaction will not be solved with more taxes or risky borrowing schemes," Aaron McLear said.
"We must live within our means and use this crisis as an opportunity to reform our budget and fix our pension system that is spiraling out of control," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he does not take deadlines lightly but that it is more important to pass a budget that preserves key programs and reflects state values than to enact something quickly.
"I'm really focused on making sure that we do our best to get it right, not just for this year but that we take advantage of the moment and begin restructuring this failed structure," Steinberg said of year-after-year of budget crises.
A 10-person Assembly and Senate conference committee has been meeting nearly every day for more than a week, and is scheduled to continue doing so, in attempting to craft a deal that could be fine-tuned for floor votes.
The conference committee has not yet grappled with the key issue of whether to bridge the $19.1 billion gap almost entirely with program cuts or whether — and how — to raise billions in revenue at a time when unemployment is high and the economy shaky.
Schwarzenegger has proposed wiping out California's welfare program and slashing in-home health care for elderly and disabled residents, among other things, to maintain state government without a tax hike or extensive borrowing.
Democrats vow not to decimate the safety net for the neediest Californians, but the Assembly and Senate disagree on approach.
Senate Democrats are proposing $4.9 billion in additional taxes on corporations, income, vehicles and alcohol.
Assembly Democrats are pushing to borrow $9 billion by committing future revenue from the state's container recycling program. The plan also would impose a tax on oil production and suspend about $2 billion in corporate tax breaks.
If agreement could be reached among Democrats, the conference committee conceivably could craft a budget by a simple majority, essentially ignoring Republicans. But passage in the Assembly and Senate would require a two-thirds majority of each house.
Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, said the June 15 deadline is unrealistic because the state does not get solid revenue figures until after May 15. She said she is hopeful the conference committee can craft a proposal by July 1.
"You have three very different approaches for how to solve it," Ducheny said of the multibillion-dollar deficit.
"And reconciling these is going to take a little while."
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he fears that any budget approved by the conference committee would be unraveled by political pressure.
"What I fear is that we'll get the product of a Democratic budget that's thrown down on our desks to take it or leave it — and we'll be leaving it," Nielsen said.
Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for state Controller John Chiang, said that if no budget is adopted before the start of the new fiscal year July 1, the state would have to delay payments to vendors, local governments, for Cal Grant student aid, and to legislators and their aides.
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he suspects that most voters would not be surprised that lawmakers missed today's budget deadline.
"They've become accustomed to it," Vosburgh said.
"I think that generally most people have washed their hands of state government. Unless it's a check they're personally relying on, they don't care much what Sacramento does."
But Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income residents, said she does not "fault the Legislature" for missing today's deadline because budgeting relies heavily on revenue from April's income tax deadline.
"If you want the Legislature to be further ahead in the budget process than they are, you'd have to have taxpayers pay their taxes in March," Ross said. "And I don't think that would go over very well."