SACRAMENTO — At taxpayers' expense, Senate Democrats last week sent a highly partisan mailer to 15,000 households blasting Republicans and asking recipients to pressure seven GOP senators to help override Gov. George Deukmejian's veto of a $700-million school aid bill.
The mailer, signed by Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene of Benicia, accused Republican senators of "blind partisan loyalty" to Deukmejian and said the GOP was choosing "politics over the public good," to the detriment of schoolchildren.
The letter triggered an angry reaction on the Senate floor Tuesday from Republicans, who denounced the mailer as a misuse of public funds and a violation of the Legislature's rule against using tax money for partisan political attacks.
"This looks to me like nothing more than a political hit-piece," said Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who was one of the targets of the mailer. "My question is, is this an appropriate use of taxpayer money? I say it is not."
Seymour asked his Democratic colleagues how they would feel if he used public funds to tell their constituents that the "Democrats are a bunch of yahoos."
GOP leader Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno also criticized the mailer, but he chastised his colleagues--Republicans as well as Democrats--for "backbiting" over the matter on the floor rather than discussing the matter quietly in the Rules Committee.
"We have discovered the enemy and it is us," he said.
Senate Leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) defended the mailer as a legitimate part of the debate over whether to return the budget surplus to the taxpayers, as Deukmejian has proposed, or to spend it primarily on schools, as the Democrats have urged.
Roberti said the Senate Rules Committee and the Legislative Counsel routinely censor members' newsletters for politically partisan content to avoid charges that senators are campaigning at public expense. But he said Keene's missive, which was sent to a list of people who had written the Legislature about the education issue, was different from newsletters generally mailed to all registered voters in a particular district.
"As long as it is to a legitimate group and not just sent indiscriminately to all the voters (and is) on a public policy issue, we haven't edited for partisanship," Roberti said. "That's all part of the governmental advocacy that we do here, from putting out your press releases to putting out your mail. It all becomes partisan. We do it all the time."
Keene said his letter was part of his job as majority leader to ensure passage of the Democrats' legislative package.
"It is the business of the leadership to round up the necessary votes on important public policy issues," Keene said.
Roberti aide Cliff Berg, chief executive officer of the Senate, said in an interview that statewide mailings such as Keene's are made "infrequently." He said he could not remember another like it within the last year.
Berg said the mailer was written by Senate Rules Committee staff members and printed in the Senate print shop. He estimated the total cost of the project at about $3,000.
Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.