SACRAMENTO — The state Senate Republican leader threatened lawmakers in his party this week that he will fight to end their political careers if they vote for tax increases to close California's $38.2-billion budget gap.
In a closed-door joint Senate and Assembly GOP caucus meeting, Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga on Tuesday told colleagues that he will come to their districts and seek their defeats in their next elections if they vote for tax hikes.
Brulte even brought in a mock political advertisement that he said would be mailed to voters of traitorous party members with money he would raise.
The threats come at a sensitive time in budget negotiations. Lawmakers are less than a month from the constitutional deadline to enact a spending plan and negotiations remain paralyzed. Democrats said the budget hole can't be closed without new revenue and have proposed $8 billion in taxes on sales, tobacco, vehicles and the income of high earners. Republican leaders said those hikes would hurt the economy and that they will not consider them.
To pass a budget by the constitutionally required two-thirds, Democrats need some GOP votes in each house of the Legislature. Last year, five Republicans broke ranks to vote for the budget and party leaders don't want that to happen again.
Some who were at the meeting said the message from the Legislature's most influential Republican was meant to bully.
"It was absolutely brazen intimidation," said one Republican there, asking to remain anonymous for fear that Brulte will target the lawmaker. "Clearly they feel threatened by people who are going to go off and put in place a solution they are not part of.
"You now have the leaders saying they are going to use the party's money against you," the lawmaker said. "They have unlimited resources."
Democrats were infuriated by Brulte's comments when word leaked Wednesday. They said his remarks have set back budget negotiations significantly, and they accused him of using coercion to keep his own party members from voting their consciences. Over the last few weeks, there have been indications that at least a couple of Republicans would consider voting for a half-cent sales tax increase in a budget package if it included firm spending caps, reform of the workers' compensation system and an easing of some of the regulation state government places on business.
Those Republicans have now been told that they will be ostracized from the party if they step out of line.
Brulte offered no apologies for his comments Wednesday and said he was speaking for himself and not the party. He said it is the Democrats who play dirty.
"I just wanted to be clear to everybody," Brulte said. "We know the games the Democrats are going to play. They are going to try to buy people, they are going to try to bribe them."
Brulte cited former Sen. Maurice Johannessen, who was kicked out of the caucus after he broke with party leaders and voted for the budget last year. He has since been named by Gov. Gray Davis to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Former GOP Assemblyman Mike Briggs, who also voted for the budget, was given a lucrative consulting contract by the Assembly Democrats.
"Heck, one guy that voted for a tax increase ended up on the speaker's payroll pulling down nine grand a month, or eight grand," Brulte said, referring to Briggs.
Asked if the mock advertisement Brulte showed fellow Republicans was intended as a threat, he said, "That wasn't the message." He described it as a bland political message that talked about President George W. Bush working to lower taxes and Davis, a Democrat, working to raise them.
Others who were at the caucus meeting described the ad as a "hit piece" that would be sent to voters in the primary to suggest that their representative is the reason taxes are too high.
Brulte refused to show the advertisement to reporters. "It's none of your business," he said.
News of Brulte's remarks spread through the Capitol Wednesday as Davis met with him and other legislative leaders to discuss the budget. More than a dozen such meetings have been held since November. Lawmakers typically report little progress after the meetings, as they did Wednesday.
A spokesman for the governor said Davis was troubled by what he had heard about the Republican meeting the day before.
"The governor certainly hopes these reports of Republican intimidation turn out to be false," said Davis spokesman Steven Maviglio. "Californians deserve more from their elected officials."
Other Democrats were less measured in their remarks.
Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) said he was "appalled but not surprised."
"I think we were close and this is a serious setback and one that can be laid directly at their feet," Wesson said. "It is obvious to me that not only do they take hostages, they shoot their hostages. Californians should not stand for that."