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California lawmakers remain one vote short in budget negotiations

Legislators appear to have gathered the three GOP votes in the Assembly and two of the three votes in the Senate needed to approve the $41-billion plan. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass expresses optimism.

February 17, 2009|Jordan Rau and Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — With lawmakers still unable to deliver a budget after three days of intense negotiations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger prepared to lay off 10,000 government workers and his administration said it would halt the last 275 state-funded public works projects still in operation.

The projects, which cost $3.8 billion and include upgrades to 18 bridges and roads in Los Angeles County to protect them from collapsing in earthquakes, had been allowed to continue as others were suspended because the state was running out of cash.

The projects to be suspended today had been exempted from a November stop order because of the significant financial cost of canceling contracts, the expense of resuming them or the public-health or public-safety ramifications. The list also includes work to eliminate arsenic in the Central Valley town of Live Oak and half-built highway construction projects.

Schwarzenegger had delayed sending out pink slips since Friday, hoping that lawmakers would soon approve a budget. But they failed Monday to find a third GOP vote in the state Senate to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget -- a requirement that essentially gives the minority Republicans veto power. A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said layoff notices would go out today.

Late Monday evening, both houses of the Legislature adjourned and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) ordered senators back to the chamber at 10 a.m. today, saying they would stay until a budget passed.

"Bring a toothbrush," he said. "I will not allow anyone to go home to resume their lives or any kind of normal business."

State Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) was viewed as the most likely candidate to provide the final vote, but by Monday evening legislative leaders had not agreed to his demands. The dominant Democrats need three Republican votes in each house to pass the budget; leaders in the Assembly said the votes were available in the lower house.

Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis and Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto, the two GOP leaders in the Legislature, told their members last week that the deal they helped forge was the strongest Republicans could get. But most GOP lawmakers have taken an antitax pledge, and the package relies on $14.4 billion in tax hikes to plug a nearly $42-billion budget hole.

The challenge of rounding up the handful of Republican votes has shown how strong the resistance to taxes remains in California politics.

In the Assembly, Republicans Roger Niello of Fair Oaks and Anthony Adams of Hesperia have agreed to join Villines in supporting the higher sales, income and gas taxes that are part of the package, legislators said. The move carries significant political risk.

Niello, who worked in his family's Sacramento County auto dealership before entering politics, will be forced from the Assembly next year by term limits. He is seeking to run for one of the most conservative state Senate districts, and faces a primary against a fellow assemblyman who would undoubtedly bludgeon Niello as being in favor of taxes.

Niello refused to publicly commit his vote, saying simply that it "will be based on the total package -- and right now, not all the details are nailed down."

Legislative leaders said Niello agreed to support the package because he is the senior Republican on the Assembly budget panel. By political custom, lawmakers in such positions vote for budgets that their leaders recommend.

Adams, a bearded 37-year-old who was elected in 2006 after working for San Bernardino County as its legislative liaison to Sacramento and Washington, has said he would provide the Assembly's third GOP vote.

"It's unconscionable that we let this state go over the cliff," Adams said in an interview. "My job is to get the best possible deal for Republicans."

Adams faces reelection next year, and his support for the budget package has antitax advocates interested in lining up a challenger in the GOP primary. And because he represents a swing district, Adams must also worry about a general-election challenge from a Democrat.Adams said he had not asked for specific concessions for his vote, or for assurances that he would get assistance to fend off election challenges.

"I'm not trying to find some soft landing," he said, "although my wife is going to kill me if she hears that."

The political repercussions for Villines are the least intimidating. A gregarious former Capitol staffer and public relations man, he easily brushed back a weekend attempt to topple him as leader of the Assembly's 29 Republicans. He is in his last term in the Assembly, and the state Senate and Congress seats he may be eyeing are held by incumbents with no immediate plans to vacate them.

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