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Unaware that a live microphone was broadcasting their words around the Capitol, 11 Assembly Democrats meeting behind closed doors debated prolonging California’s budget crisis for political gain, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Members of the Democratic Study Group were unaware that a microphone in the committee room was on as they discussed slowing progress in an attempt to increase pressure on Republicans to accept tax increases as part of a deal to resolve the state’s $38-billion budget gap.

The conversation was transmitted to roughly 500 “squawk boxes” around Sacramento that political staff, lobbyists and reporters use to listen in on legislative proceedings.

According to Republican staff members who captured parts of the meeting on tape, Los Angeles Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and others discussed holding up the budget to dramatize the consequences and build support for a ballot initiative that would make it easier to raise taxes.

“Since this is going to be a crisis, the crisis could be this year,” Goldberg said, according to a transcript. “No one’s running [for reelection]. And maybe you end up better off than you would have, and maybe you don’t. But what you do is you show people that you can’t get to this without a 55 percent vote.”

The ballot initiative would let the legislature approve any tax increase with a 55 percent vote. The state constitution requires a two-thirds majority. That means that under the current makeup of the legislature, at least eight Republicans must join the slim Democratic majority for a tax increase to pass.

Fabian Nunez, also of Los Angeles, agreed. “If you don’t have a budget, it helps Democrats,” he was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times report.

Republicans noted that many caucus members have charged the GOP with holding the budget process hostage. Now, those same Democrats have been caught on tape discussing ways to hold things up.

Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman John Campbell, R-Irvine, told the Times he listened to about 20 minutes of the meeting on the squawk box in his office.

“It sounded like they were hoping to create a crisis at some point to further their political gains in other areas,” he said. “I thought that was outrageous.”

Campbell said Democrats also discussed whether delaying the budget would increase the chance of the union-backed initiative that would lower the threshold for new taxes to a 55 percent vote of the legislature.

Campbell said that the Democrats discussed leveraging the public’s distaste for the legislature.

After about 90 minutes, a staffer interrupted to alert lawmakers that their meeting was not private at all:

“Excuse me, guys, you can be heard outside,” an unidentified staff member said.

“Oh [expletive], [expletive],” Goldberg said.

“The squawk box is on,” the staff member said. “You need to turn it off right there.”

“How could that happen?” Goldberg said.

Democrats who attended the caucus session included Patti Berg, Eureka; Judy Chu, Monterey Park; Mervyn Dymally, Compton; Loni Hancock, Berkeley; Hannah-Beth Jackson, Santa Barbara; John Laird, Santa Cruz; John Longville, Rialto; Alan Lowenthal, Long Beach; and Patricia Wiggins, Santa Rosa.

Goldberg made no apologies about her comments with regard to the timing of a “crisis.”

She said it was part of a discussion over whether it would be better to make deeper cuts this year, to show Californians the severity of the state’s money troubles, or to disguise the problem this year and make more drastic cuts next year.

“It meant whether or not we do the things this year or next year that let the public understand how serious the situation is,” Goldberg said. “They think if we skate by, it was all hyperbole up here.

“We’re in a crisis,” said Goldberg. “You don’t have to precipitate one. The question is whether we should make that crisis happen now when it’s really happening … When you wait a year, you double the amount you have to cut … Is it better to do it now or next year?”

Read transcript of portions of the Democrats’ meeting. (You must have Adobe Acrobat to view this .pdf file.)

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