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GOP holdouts on state budget cite principles

The senators, unswayed by the governor's pleading, say they're standing up for their constituents and the state's fiscal integrity.

August 18, 2007|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- When state Sen. Bob Margett walks among the manufacturers and dairy farmers of his conservative district, he says, "it's all attaboys" for his part in the seven-week budget stalemate that has paralyzed much of state government.

" 'Bob, . . . thank God for the Senate,' " the Arcadia lawmaker recalled hearing time and again. "I'm getting all these attaboys to hang in there, and that's my constituency. I don't have a single vote in San Francisco."

Nor is he beholden to voters in other largely Democratic urban areas. Margett and 13 GOP colleagues in the Senate represent a minority of Californians, mostly in rural towns, yet by banding together to withhold the one vote still needed, they have stretched the budget deadlock to 48 days.

Outnumbered by Democrats, they have spent careers watching the promulgation of social and fiscal policies they abhor -- on matters from abortion to the environment -- while legislation they hold dear is relegated to the recycling bin. Because the budget is among the few types of legislation that can't pass without minority support, the annual spending battle allows them a rare chance to exercise influence.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Budget fight: A photo caption accompanying an article in Saturday's California section about Republican holdouts on the state budget misidentified state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) as Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto).

For instance, state Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield, a slim, salt-and-pepper-haired man who represents growers in the Central Valley, has some demands. One of them is a bill to curb the power of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, to file lawsuits that could hold up proposals from last year's $40-billion infrastructure bond act on the grounds that they could worsen global warming.

"If we don't keep faith with the public and build these bridges and roads and highways and fix the water system and build these schools like we told the public we were going to do -- if instead we squander that away in lawsuits -- that is just wrong, and I'm not going to be a part of it," said Ashburn, 53, in an interview last week.

A proud conservative who lost a congressional bid three years ago, Ashburn made a name for himself as a Kern County supervisor fighting to remove a desert squirrel from the state's endangered species list because limitations on property owners in the squirrel's name were "terrorizing" his constituents.

Ashburn remained unswayed on the budget when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican who has moved to the political center, promised to veto $700 million in spending if the senators would go along. Ashburn called $150 million of Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts "phony" and "an accounting gimmick."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said all the proposals were "real spending reductions." In any case, the governor's cuts didn't match the senator's priorities.

"It didn't have welfare recipients get a job, become self-reliant and go off the rolls at five years. That's $350 million that could have been included," Ashburn said. "It continues a lower tuition for illegal immigrants in our community colleges in California. That's wrong."

The Assembly passed a budget backed by Schwarzenegger on July 20 -- nearly three weeks past the deadline -- that reduced transportation funding by $1.3 billion, delayed welfare increases and slashed drug treatment for prisoners. Lawmakers return to the Capitol from summer break Monday.

Earlier this month, a Sierra Club environmentalist derided the Senate's Republican holdouts as "a gang of 14 privileged. . . white men" obstructing funding for healthcare, schools and parks. Sen. Jim Battin, 45, a wry, easygoing Republican from La Quinta whose father was a congressman and federal judge in Montana, took offense.

"They're just very loud and angry," Battin said of "liberals," adding that mockery would not deter his caucus.

He said Democrats created the problem themselves with a 2001 redistricting that polarized the Legislature by making most districts safe for incumbents.

But "at one point, everyone's going to realize that we are serious about this and we're not going to change," he said. "Then we'll be happy to sit down and negotiate with them."

The Senate Republicans are so tight-knit that they agreed no one would support the budget unless a majority of the 15-member caucus agreed. Only one, Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, who represents one of the state's few tightly contested districts and is seeking reelection, defected and voted for the budget. "I got elected to represent the 15th senatorial district," he said, "not to represent the Republican senatorial caucus."

Margett represents parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. The 78-year-old retired contractor and father of seven is a devout Catholic with a relaxed, grandfatherly air. He said he tries to live by a moral code, and suggested that Maldonado could pay a price for violating their "gentleman's agreement."

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