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GOP's soft-spoken, hard-line leader

April 02, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Up close, the state Senate's new minority leader is soft-spoken and seems perhaps shy. But he definitely is not shy. And through his soft voice, he is an outspoken advocate for a conservative ideology.

Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, 42, of Murrieta is a hard-right Republican who gives every indication of being a legislative leader who won't budge on taxes. Not now, not ever.

He could be Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's worst nightmare, not to mention the Democrats'.

Hollingsworth says he and the governor have only chatted briefly, not substantively, since the senator landed his job in a February coup that toppled the then-minority leader, Dave Cogdill of Modesto. Cogdill had become a Schwarzenegger ally on budgeting and taxes.

"It was one of those unfortunate, ugly situations where the [GOP] caucus decided to go in a different direction because of our opposition to the [tax increase] deal that had been negotiated" by Cogdill, other legislative leaders and the governor, Hollingsworth says.

I asked Hollingsworth how Schwarzenegger could improve his notoriously poor relations with Republican legislators. "He really needs to listen to where we're coming from," the senator replied. "We're representing valid constituencies just as much as he is."

I was curious about Hollingsworth, a tall, always composed lawmaker who rarely misses an opportunity to participate in a major Senate floor debate. I was especially curious about how he thought the state could possibly make ends meet with spending cuts alone and not raising taxes.

Another curiosity for years has been about how he worked his way through college selling frozen bull semen to dairies. But first I plowed through some budget talk in his spacious, wood-paneled Capitol office.

Like most Republican lawmakers, Hollingsworth only says that the new tax hikes should have been avoided. Similarly, any future budget-balancing measures must exclude tax hikes. But he doesn't say precisely how.

The Legislative Analyst's Office already has identified an unexpected $8-billion hole in the next state budget. And if the governor's and Legislature's budget propositions on the May 19 ballot are rejected -- which polls indicate is very possible -- then the hole will be $6 billion deeper.

"We'll have to make some tough choices," Hollingsworth says. "All the decisions are painful. Unfortunately, we've put it off so long."

The Legislature and governor did, however, cut programs in February by $16 billion while raising taxes by $12.5 billion.

"I don't see an appetite in my caucus -- even among the three who voted for a tax increase -- to vote again for more taxes," Hollingsworth says. "People can't afford it in these times."

That's why he opposes Proposition 1A, which would create a new state spending limit, but extend the tax increases for up to two years. He predicts the measure will fail.

"It's really hard to explain to people that, 'You need to extend your tax increases' in order to get something that's so inside baseball as a spending cap," Hollingsworth says. "People understand what a tax increase means in their daily lives. They don't understand what a spending cap means."

I mentioned that this might be the last chance in the foreseeable future for Republicans to attain their longtime goal of a constitutional spending cap. "May be," the senator leader replied. "But I don't think it's worth the tax increases."

So besides painful cuts in programs like education and healthcare, what else is possible? He answers: "Now's a chance to look at some of these big reforms we always say we're going to do and never do."

Such as? Combining the state Board of Equalization and the Franchise Tax Board. The former collects the sales tax; the latter the income tax.

OK, but between the two, they spend less than $1 billion annually.

The GOP list gets really vague after that. "There are potential things we're starting to think about, but we can't go into much detail yet, because we don't have much detail."

Hollingsworth is a pragmatist to this extent: He supports three measures on the ballot designed to net the deficit-prone general fund roughly $6 billion. Prop. 1C would allow the state to borrow $5 billion against future lottery profits. Props 1D and 1E would transfer money from early childhood education and mental health services, respectively, to the general fund.

"They're decent proposals," Hollingsworth says, "but all a tough sell."

He's also a pragmatist on another front: party fratricide.

GOP activists have mounted recall campaigns against some of the six Republican lawmakers who voted for the tax hikes.

"It doesn't make sense," Hollingsworth says.

"It's like circling the wagons and pointing the guns to the inside rather than the outside."

Hollingsworth is a short-timer as a leader. He'll be termed out next year and isn't sure what he'll do next. Maybe run for the Assembly. He probably won't go back to selling bull semen.

How'd he fall into that work? His father was a dairyman who got into the business. When Dennis was leaving for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, his father announced the family didn't have much money. But he turned over his clientele list and phone numbers.

"I did that on weekends and summers and over the phone on weeknights," Hollingsworth recalls. "It pretty much paid for my education."

He sold to dairies in the San Joaquin Valley and closer to home around Chino and San Jacinto. He'd buy the semen from owners of stud bulls, then sell it for prices ranging from $1 to $2,000 -- delivering it in small "straws" that would be inserted into a cow's uterus.

There must be some analogy here about how selling bull semen prepares one to handle political bull, but it escapes me.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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