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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Two Legislators Who Made a Deal--and a Difference

September 18, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Before this year's bizarre legislative session fades into foggy memory, it should be noted that at the weary end there were two bold heroes--Republican Curt Pringle and, especially, Democrat Bill Lockyer.

Politicians get pummeled by the press when they flop, so it's only proper that they be praised when they produce.

These two legislative leaders--Pringle no longer wears a "leader" title, but clearly is one--both produced a bunch during the 22-hour, all-night windup that didn't end until after sunrise Saturday.

So did Gov. Pete Wilson, who negotiated with Lockyer using Pringle as the go-between.

Lockyer, 56, the Senate president pro tem and a 24-year veteran of both houses, reaffirmed that he is California's most powerful state legislator.

The Hayward senator also is a testament to the benefits of experience and the folly of term limits. Contrast him to the timid, indecisive Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), a legislator for only four years.

The case against term limits is weaker using Pringle as evidence. He's seasoned, but hardly a longtime veteran. The Garden Grove lawmaker, 38, is only in his seventh year as a legislator. Still, that's one year longer than term limits permit. (He served a brief hitch before term limits were imposed.)

Wilson, Lockyer and Pringle all shared one indispensable asset: They each knew what they wanted. They had a bottom line.

The governor wanted a tax cut in the billion-dollar range. Lockyer wanted lots of state money for trial courts--help for counties--coupled with more collective bargaining rights for court employees. Pringle also wanted a big tax cut. But, unlike Wilson, he wanted a child tax credit rather than an across-the-board income tax cut.

Each also very badly wanted to win. And each did.

*

Lockyer is a brawler with brains. He also can be a bully, the characteristic of a very good legislative leader. In battle, with victory or defeat on the line, he makes no pretenses of charm.

Friday night, Lockyer yelled, cursed and menaced--also connived and coaxed--and blasted the megadeal negotiated by Wilson and him out of the Assembly as the speaker seemed confused.

To back up, in late August, Lockyer and Pringle began negotiating a possible deal that would provide trial-court funding and an equal amount in tax cuts. Bustamante insisted there also be a pay hike for state workers. The Democratic tax cut offer to Wilson rose from $340 million to $750 million, where it stood mid-Friday.

Wilson proclaimed that his price for both trial court funding and a workers' pay hike was a $1-billion tax cut. He proposed an across-the-board income tax cut, slightly smaller than one Democrats had rejected in July. The governor preferred that scheme because it would benefit all tax filers. Lockyer came back with a $931-million cut, most of it tax credits for just the 22% of filers who claim dependents.

The child tax credit--straight out of Newt Gingrich's "contract with America"--was better than nothing, Pringle persuaded Wilson. So they agreed. Wilson tossed in $450 million for courts, Lockyer 40 new judges.

But Bustamante balked, contending there really wasn't a guaranteed pay raise, only the governor's promise to negotiate in good faith.

Thereupon, Sen. Lockyer, with Pringle's help, effectively took over the Assembly.

*

At 1:30 a.m., Lockyer began working the Assembly floor, holding court with eager Democrats and explaining the tax agreement--something Bustamante wouldn't do.

Lockyer marched into Bustamante's office and got into a shouting match--the speaker was "incompetent," Lockyer "arrogant." Lockyer threatened to pass the deal out of the Senate and ram it down the Assembly's throat, or some such language.

Pringle and Lockyer finessed an Assembly Democratic caucus, where they knew Bustamante would be rolled. Pringle called a GOP caucus, realizing Democrats would call their own.

As Bustamante was telling reporters how horrible the tax cut would be for school funding, he was summoned to caucus. There, veteran Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae) stood and announced he would vote with Republicans for the plan. Other Democrats nodded they would, too.

Suddenly Bustamante switched and became a megadeal supporter. In the "vote yes" mood, a lot of other important bills passed--Wilson's school testing, Lockyer's gambling regulation. . . .

"It was not necessarily a pretty thing at every point," Wilson later told a news conference.

Ugly, in fact. But at least for one long night, the Legislature again was relevant.

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