The ritual is part of a time-honored tradition of stoking anticipation for the budget season's two kickoff events -- the State of the State speech (itself previewed at a special Jan. 3 briefing for reporters) and the formal unveiling of the actual budget (on Jan. 9) -- and shaping how they are reported.
Although the budget story stretches out until early summer, coverage tends to center on the high-profile opening events and ceremonies. These produce many more telegenic images and soundbites than the day-to-day grind of legislative business, and they provide the governor an unfettered opportunity to highlight feel-good budget news (education spending is up!) before reporters start poking around for stories that may be less flattering. (Funny how no official seems eager to leak the details of the welfare overhaul plan that is likely to be the most contentious issue in the upcoming legislative session.)
Material publicized during this period is actually gleaned from a combination of the aforementioned selective leaks and interviews with the governor himself conducted in the final weeks of the previous year. The latter are ostensibly held so that reporters can prepare lengthy "year-enders" or New Year "advancers" (aka "thumb-suckers"). But the interview sessions are commonly understood by both press and administration as opportunities to foreshadow the governor's actual proposals and convey the administration's message.
So, for example, the governor tells an interviewer that California businesses are facing new competitive pressure from abroad. This would be the cue for the reporter to suggest in a thumb-sucker that the governor wants to cut business taxes. The story can then be followed a week later by a front-page "exclusive" containing leaked details of those tax cuts and, finally, a self-congratulatory pat on the back in a front-page story that confirms the tax cut proposal once the budget is made public. The thumb-sucker cycle was compressed this season thanks to the intervention of real news -- the widespread rains and flooding that hit the state.
News organizations that rank highest in the Capitol press corps pecking order get one-on-one audiences with the governor, while those less esteemed get group interviews generally arranged to avoid direct competition with colleagues in the same circulation area.
Some of the Leak Week bounty to date includes the governor's plans to propose $13 million for coastal protection (the environmental governor?), to allocate more money for class-size reduction and to hold the line on college fees (the education governor, Part 2), and an increase in AIDSfunding partly through shifting funds from one account to another (the compassion governor).
For the remaining weeks and months of the season, the following guide to budget reportage will let readers experience more fully the mysteries of this legerdemain:
"Days of Awe" (Jan. 8-15): This is the most intense period of budget coverage, marked by detailed, front-page stories on actual numbers, supplementary stories on programs that will be most affected, and the ubiquitous pie charts and bar graphs purporting to clarify how everything compares with everything else. Some television coverage should be expected. Follow-up budget stories during this week can also make the front page if they include pithy comments from legislators about how difficult it will be to pass a final budget, inflammatory complaints from interest groups whose oxes will be gored, and appropriate quotes from experts in Washington, on Wall Street, or in academia assessing the impact of the budget on the economy or the governor's political fortunes.
"Days of Reckoning" (Jan. 16-30): By this point, reporters, editorial boards, and the pundit class will have zeroed in on two or three numerical anomalies, inherent contradictions in programmatic proposals, and the troubling discovery that the governor is planning something like a raid on the Desert Cactus Protection Fund to pay for prison construction. Budget stories will now have moved to inside pages and off of television altogether. But clever reporters will be able to spin one or two more onto the front page by figuring out how the governor's proposals mesh with the federal budget, which President Clinton will deliver to Congress on Feb. 3. (Washington's Month of Leaks, a higher-octane version of the Sacramento machinations, is already under way and will intensify as the date for release of the federal budget approaches.)
"Days of Boredom" (most of February): This period is marked by detailed accounts of which legislators selected which cars from the Capitol motor pool and how much legislators are spending to furnish their offices. The budget has disappeared.
"Days of Despair" (late February): This is a one- or two-day cycle of stories based on the analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO). Perhaps the single most instructive budget document to come out of the Capitol each year, it offers a department-by-department accounting of where money is actually being spent and explains, for the umpteenth time, why the state's fiscal problems are fundamentally intractable. Budget stories that emerge from it, however, generally focus on the LAO's estimate that the Legislature will have to cut spending more deeply than the governor has proposed in order to meet the state's constitutional requirement for a balanced budget.
"Seven Days in May" (May 8-15): This is a smaller-scale version of the January leak and scoop ritual that coincides with Department of Finance revisions of earlier revenue and spending projections. The new numbers, which take into account economic changes since the beginning of the year and legislative action in Washington, form the basis of the budget on which legislators will actually vote. Leaks during this period are based on interviews with Cabinet members rather than the governor. While coverage is generally much more limited than in January, the May revision period can be an occasion for important message-sending by the administration. Last May, the booming economy generated an unanticipated $2.7 billion in new state revenue, giving Wilson an opportunity to become the "education governor" in a spate of flattering stories on his proposals to reduce class size. Those stories generally neglected to note that the governor was required by law to allocate roughly 50 percent of the extra money to education anyway. (See "feel-good budget news" above.)
"Days of Deadline" (June 12-15): This period is marked by a brief spurt of stories (often including television coverage) in which reporters note that the June 15 deadline for legislative passage of the budget is nearing, coming down to the final hours, and, surprise, has in fact been missed. There is no legal penalty (nor particular consequence) for missing this constitutionally set deadline.
"Days of Suspense" (June 16-July 1 or thereabouts): These final weeks of the budget season are celebrated with increasingly dramatic stories drawing attention to the approaching end of the fiscal year on June 30 and outlining the possible adverse consequences if the governor and the Legislature fail to reach a budget compromise. The Department of Finance is deluged with requests from news organizations for the list of previous years in which the deadline has been missed. Print coverage focuses on internecine party warfare, complex compromise formulas, and short tempers among key budget players. Television coverage concentrates on late-night bargaining sessions. Front-page play is guaranteed for any reporter who can obtain quotes from participants in "closed-door meetings" or, better still, descriptions of "heated exchanges" among the bargainers. Self-deprecating lawmakers who provide sufficiently coherent comments on how the system is a travesty and a demonstration of the inability to govern are widely quoted in newspaper editorials.
Budget season officially ends when the governor and key legislative leaders appear before the cameras to shake hands and announce that they have struck a deal, which, while not perfect, "gets California moving in the right direction."
Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.