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For these Republicans, tax increases are heresy

A group of California Senators, most from small towns and rural areas, see their budget fight in near-sacred terms. They're energized -- intimidated, some say -- by talk radio hosts and bloggers.

February 19, 2009|Michael Rothfeld and Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — He started out as a champion of their ideals, the leader of a group of conservative Republican state senators devoted to cutting the size of government and blocking tax increases for their rural and suburban constituents.

But over time, state Sen. Dave Cogdill came to see the crisis facing California as bigger than his own closely held views. Then late Tuesday, two former allies walked into his office to deliver the news that his reign was over.

"I don't want to raise taxes, either," Cogdill, a Modesto businessman turned lawmaker, said Wednesday. "It was the hardest decision of my political career, and probably the one that ended it.

"But nonetheless, you know, we're sent here to do a job," he said, "and you don't control the situation. You just have to react to it, stand up for what you believe and make the right decisions."

With the state government and its elected leadership near paralysis, a small group of Republican senators has successfully stymied efforts by Democrats, fellow Republicans in the Assembly and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to plug the state's giant deficit with a plan that includes $14.4 billion in taxes, along with deep program cuts and limits on future spending.

Their near-sacred opposition to taxes ran headlong into a deficit so large that even some within their ranks say it cannot be dealt with by trimming fat from government alone. Still, these true believers have refused to submit, energized -- and intimidated, some say -- by national conservative figures, local talk radio hosts and bloggers.

In this crisis, some senators and their supporters see an opportunity to spotlight a bloated bureaucracy, to change contracting and employment laws that benefit unions and to address other pet peeves that cost the public money.

"That 'chicken in every pot' philosophy is a load of crap," a reader, Gregg Palmer, wrote on a conservative blog in response to a note from Cogdill shortly after his late-night ouster. "If the state need(s) to close its doors for a few weeks, so be it. We'll be better off.

"Stand firm," he urged those lawmakers holding out against tax hikes.

Schwarzenegger praised Cogdill on Wednesday for his stand, calling him a man "of great character and a man that you can really trust 100%."

"He did what was right for the people," the governor said. "Maybe not what was right for politics."

Republicans hold only 15 of the state Senate's 40 seats. But they wield significant influence, because two-thirds of lawmakers are needed to approve state budgets, and that requires some GOP votes.

The senators hail mostly from the smaller cities and towns of California, where farming and industry drive the economy, cities are often viewed as sinkholes for state tax dollars, and regulations such as environmental restrictions are seen as an impediment to success.

The GOP senators' new leader, Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, was born and raised on a Riverside County dairy farm in a town of 6,000 residents; he worked early on selling frozen bull semen to dairymen and later as a representative for an association of farmers and ranchers.

Hollingsworth, state chairman of a national group that advocates for smaller government, said Wednesday that he would never deviate from his principles. He recalled that four Republican assemblymen who voted for a tax increase in 2001 lost their next election or decided to not to run again.

"It's not as though there are party leaders who are taking actions against members like that," Hollingsworth said. "It's that the people decide that a Republican who raises taxes doesn't usually represent their interests."

Those who defy party orthodoxy, Cogdill said, face derision from "some pretty powerful outside voices" who "crank up" when their elected officials come close to making deals with Democrats.

Local politicians fear the conservative radio hosts of the "John & Ken Show" on KFI-AM (640). And Jon Fleischman, an influential Orange County blogger who publishes "The Flash Report" online, suggested in an interview that Hollingsworth could "buy some time" before new taxes are approved because Democrats might enact deeper cuts "the more dire circumstances become."

"I sure hope he goes over and talks some sense into Mike Villines," Fleischman said, referring to the Assembly GOP leader who supports the tax increases and recently fended off a coup attempt from his own members.

Much has also been made of the anti-tax pledge circulated by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington. Most of the Republicans in the Legislature have signed it.

Norquist, reached by telephone, compared California Democrats who are upset that Republicans won't authorize new taxes to "the alcoholic who complains someone won't keep buying them liquor."

Not all Republican senators supported the move to change leaders. Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield, believed to be leaning toward voting for the new tax package, called it "very unwise" to focus on such issues in the middle of a budget crisis.

"The more important thing would be governing the state of California," Ashburn said.

But for others, including Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), it is a matter of listening to the "hard-working middle-class people" he represents.

"Just yesterday alone, we had 400 telephone calls," he said. "Overwhelmingly, more than 40 to 1, they were saying, 'Please do not raise our taxes.' "

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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