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Sen. Maldonado comes out a winner in budget brawl

February 20, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Normally, it might take years for a citizens reform group to place an open primary proposal on a statewide ballot. Sen. Abel Maldonado did it in less than a week.

Actually, the heavy work was done in less than 24 hours.

The brashness, the audacity, the tenacity of this Republican lawmaker from Santa Maria in ramming such a landmark measure through a Legislature that ordinarily wouldn't have touched it in a blue moon made him the single biggest winner of the budget-tax brawl that finally ended in the Capitol at dawn Thursday.

You never want to see the sun rising over Sacramento from a perch inside a legislative chamber. That means you've been there all night without sleep.

But Maldonado, 41, walked away a huge prize winner. The former Santa Maria mayor long has coveted an open primary system, as California had in the late 1990s before it was ruled unconstitutional. Such a primary allows people to vote for any candidate they choose, regardless of party. That tends to benefit moderates like Maldonado. It also can weaken parties. And for both reasons, open primaries are anathema to most legislators.

But Maldonado wielded extraordinary leverage: the potential third Republican vote needed in the Senate to attain the two-thirds majority required for passage of the $42-billion deficit reduction act. He found an ally in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then the lawmaker forced the two Democratic leaders to accept the open primary as his price for the clinching budget-tax vote.

Well, not quite. Maldonado also held out for scrubbing a proposed 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, saving motorists $1.8 billion annually. A good populist move. Based on my e-mailers, that gas gouge was the most offensive of all the proposed tax bites.

And while he was at it, Maldonado pushed through a measure forbidding legislators from getting a pay raise when there's a budget deficit. Both the open primary and pay raise proposals must be approved by voters.

There were other winners who didn't make out as well materially but gained much in stature.

Rookie Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a smiling bulldog, was pragmatic, persistent and pleasant. But also firm. He practically locked down the Senate for six days and wouldn't let lawmakers leave until they rescued the state from the proverbial cliff.

He alternated between sounding like a naive college rally leader and a hard-bitten political boss. He was civil but wouldn't back down from telling critical Republicans they were "so off base." At the end of one exhortation Sunday night, he vowed: "We're going to come back every day until this gets done." And he concluded a bit caustically: "Thank you -- and good night."

Steinberg's continuing message: The tax increases are going to pass and soon, one way or the other. And they did.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was another winner, earning marks for leadership. Like Steinberg, she delivered all the votes of Democrats, although most of them detested the sharp cuts in programs for the poor -- children, single moms, the aged, blind and disabled.

For one of the rare times in memory, the Assembly and Senate Democratic leaders didn't play petty games and bicker behind the scenes. They actually cooperated.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis won a Profile in Courage award for bucking the conservative anti-tax rage and calmly compromising with Democrats and the governor. He quickly produced the three GOP votes needed for Assembly passage.

While acknowledging during the dawn floor debate Thursday that tax increases are "terrible and will hurt the economy," Villines declared the Legislature had no other choice if it wanted to return the state to solvency. He pointed out the many concessions in the package to Republicans, particularly the "real spending cap that will work."

There also was another category of competitors -- a group I call "win some, lose some."

Schwarzenegger heads the list.

This deficit debacle was on his watch. He was elected more than five years ago pledging to "end the deficit spending" without raising taxes. He couldn't. He went on a borrowing binge while promising to "tear up the credit card." He didn't.

Schwarzenegger should have raised taxes gently years ago. Instead, he cut the vehicle license fee, a $6-billion annual loss. Now he must sign a whopping tax hike projected to produce $12.5 billion over the next 16 months.

But credit Schwarzenegger with producing the basic compromise framework.

And he learned a lot about governing in recent weeks. He stayed in Sacramento and negotiated face to face for long hours, cajoling and coercing. He did some local schmoozing, taking Maldonado to lunch Wednesday at a popular Capitol hangout. Nice stroke.

Schwarzenegger still, however, hasn't bothered to build any relationship with most fellow Republicans.

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