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Democrats Bear Gifts to GOP Colleagues


SACRAMENTO — There are no red roses, mood lights or romantic melodies, but make no mistake: There is a sweet seduction taking place these days in the state Capitol.

Hoping to pass a budget without having to strike a deal with GOP leaders, Democratic suitors are coyly pursuing individual Republican lawmakers with whispered suggestions of pork projects and other political trinkets.

"It isn't a glass of red wine or a steak dinner," said Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach). "They offer you big bucks for your district."

The hope is that, for a relatively low political price, four Assembly Republicans will break party ranks and help Democrats approve the new spending package that passed in the Senate on June 29.

A similar strategy worked last year when Democrats ended a three-week budget stalemate by sidestepping Republican leadership and showering a few GOP legislators with such district goodies as tax breaks for farmers and cash for rural sheriffs.

So far this year, however, that approach hasn't worked. A stalemate over a $99-billion spending plan enters its third week today, with Assembly Democratic leaders appearing to be two GOP votes short of the four they need if all 50 Democrats, some of whom have their own issues with the plan, decide to support it.

It's not for lack of trying.

Harman said Democrats have hinted at helping a cause dear to his heart: preserving Orange County's Bolsa Chica mesa.

"They didn't directly say we could help you there if you're interested, but it was implied," Harman said. "They talked to me in general terms. They said we could probably work something out if you're interested, and I told them I wasn't interested."

Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) said he was approached on the Assembly floor recently by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who asked Richman if he was still interested in a constitutional amendment he had introduced earlier with Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg). It would earmark a fixed percentage of the state's general fund every year for infrastructure projects such as roads and schools.

"I was asked if I was interested in talking about it in the context of the budget," Richman said. "I said I was very interested, but that discussion needed to occur through [Assembly Republican Leader] Dave Cox. I made it clear I was not going to be peeled off from the Republican caucus."

In addition to approaching individual GOP lawmakers--or maybe as a concession that they aren't making enough progress--Democratic leaders in the Assembly initiated talks last week with the Republican leadership, too.

"Our obligation is to pass a budget," Steinberg said. "The various strategies are not mutually exclusive."

Republicans want deeper spending cuts to avoid $4 billion in new taxes and other new revenue, a wish that, if granted, would cause Democrats, many of whom want more taxes, to back away from the plan.

"You cannot solve this problem responsibly by attempting to cut $4 billion more from the budget," Steinberg said. "When push comes to shove, what you really are talking about is funding for public education and police and fire protection--services that the public expects to be top state priorities."

For his part, Gov. Gray Davis has made clear his intention to peel off the minimum number of Republican legislators rather than negotiating with their leaders, whom Davis has described as bent on holding up the budget. A letter signed last week by 28 of the 30 Assembly Republicans challenging Davis to abandon his political strategy of picking off votes failed to sway him.

"The governor is interested in getting a budget passed, which requires a minimum of four Republican votes," Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said. "He certainly would like more, however. If the Assembly Republican caucus would like to get organized and engaged in the budget process, we would welcome them to the debate."

Republican Leader Cox of Fair Oaks suggested that Davis had miscalculated and that the governor's public claims that he would peel off four GOP legislators have given members of his caucus a cause to rally around.

"You ever been on a farm?" Cox asked. "Once you allow a dog to get into the henhouse and suck the eggs, you can't cure a dog from sucking eggs. So when in fact you do that once, you believe that's the model for doing it again. That's what's transpired here."

There are reasons that this year is more difficult than last for Democrats. The $4 billion in new taxes and other revenue, for example, is a substantial increase that runs counter to the most elementary Republican fiscal principles and would be difficult for any GOP legislator to defend politically.

Republicans find cause for alarm in the fact that the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, projects that the state will face multibillion-dollar budget gaps over the next five fiscal years.

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