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California lawmakers prepare for overnight session to end budget stalemate

The state Senate is still one Republican vote short of passing a plan to close the budget shortfall with $14 billion in tax increases. Democratic leaders vow to lock members in the Capitol until the crisis is resolved.

February 18, 2009|Eric Bailey and Jordan Rau

SACRAMENTO — As California's government continued its grinding downshift toward insolvency, efforts to close the state's nearly $42-billion budget gap hit a new snag late Tuesday as Republicans in the state Senate ousted their leader.

Around 11 p.m., a group of GOP senators, unhappy with the higher taxes that Senate leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto agreed to as part of a deal with the governor and Democrats, voted to replace him in a private caucus meeting in Cogdill's office. Shortly before midnight, it was still unclear who would replace him.

Cogdill's ouster could be a major setback to budget negotiations. Cogdill was a lead negotiator on the budget package and had committed to voting for it. If he were removed from his leadership post, a new Senate minority leader would likely try to renegotiate the deal, which lawmakers spent three months forging.

Meanwhile, the Senate remained deadlocked after hours of debate, still without the final Republican vote required to achieve the two-thirds majority for approval of more than $14 billion in new taxes.

The frenetic day had begun with legislators carting sleeping bags, pillows and suitcases to work. Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) brought a bottle of cologne. Republican Sen. Sam Aanestad, an oral surgeon from Grass Valley, passed out toothbrushes. Cots were ordered from the state Office of Emergency Services.

An anticipated Senate floor vote hopscotched from the morning into the afternoon and then to late evening while tempers frayed and the clock ticked. In the middle of it all, as lawmakers struggled to keep California's fiscal fortunes from plummeting earthward, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a few moments to honor the Bay Area pilot who safely belly-landed a disabled US Airways jet into the Hudson River last month.

At stake is a plan supported by Democrats and Schwarzenegger, a GOP moderate, that calls for a 1 cent increase in the sales tax, a 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax boost and hikes in vehicle license fees and the personal income tax.

"We need to stop treating the taxpayers across California like a personal ATM," Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) said from the Senate floor, hands pounding the air to drive home his point.

"This is a balanced package," countered Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), fixing her gaze on the Republicans across the aisle. "It asks everybody to pay a little bit more in a variety of ways."

"This budget is not fair and balanced," scoffed Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater).

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), noting that Cogdill helped negotiate the budget and pledged to vote for it, said the Republican's caucus mates should join him -- or replace him.

"You ought to follow your leader or choose a new one," Leno said.

Off the floor, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) warned of "catastrophic consequences" if a budget isn't approved. The crisis has already crimped funding for $7 billion in highway work and other government projects and delayed $3 billion in tax refunds, welfare checks and other payments.

The state may soon have to issue IOUs, and 10,000 workers risk losing their jobs.

With Steinberg vowing to keep lawmakers locked in the Capitol until the crisis was resolved, Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) grumbled, "I've been locked down for 30 hours, and it's not pretty. . . . You've got to sleep in your suit."

In a bid to end the stalemate, Schwarzenegger met in his office with Sen. Dave Cox of Sacramento, a white-haired GOP veteran in his final term.

The governor and Democrats hoped to persuade either Cox or Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria, to join Cogdill and GOP Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield to help push the budget through. Three Republican votes are needed in each house to pass spending plans; legislative leaders say they have the votes in the Assembly.

"It's a huge responsibility and it's people's careers on the line," Schwarzenegger told The Times, alluding to threats by conservative bloggers and talk-radio hosts to retaliate against Republicans who vote for more taxes. "But I think in the end they know they have to make a decision what's best for the state."

Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly minority leader Mike Villines (R-Clovis) also shuttled in and out of the governor's office as the evening wore on. "In my view, there has to be definition tonight about how this is going to end," Steinberg said outside Schwarzenegger's office, adding that "some very positive, quiet discussions" were underway.

"It is always a very delicate balance," he said, "between pushing hard and then allowing for the conversations to happen around what any member needs."

Earlier in the day, Cox denounced the tax proposal hammered out in recent weeks by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders. He called the higher levies "the straw that broke the camel's back."

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