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In Murrieta, state budget meets with heated opposition

Residents in this largely conservative city in Riverside County fume over the passage of a California budget with billions in new taxes and say Republican lawmakers should have held out for more cuts.

February 21, 2009|David Kelly

At Terry's Coffee Trader in Old Town Murrieta on Friday, the drinks arrived in sturdy glass mugs while the outrage poured out by the bucketful.

Fueled by passage of a state budget with billions in new taxes, the anger in this caffeinated salon of conservatism had reached fever pitch.

"The Republicans should have stood their ground," fumed 70-year-old Tony Dragonetti. "Abel Maldonado is sick, and so are the other Republicans who voted for this. They give the you-owe-me crowd everything they need, but the poor slob who is working day after day paying taxes gets nothing."

The others at his table nodded.

"Hey, Tony, tell us what you really think!" cracked Jerry Nugent, 73.

Dragonetti paused for effect, then declared: "I think they are all crooks who have sold us all down the river."

Here in the Republican stronghold of Murrieta, home to Dennis Hollingsworth, the new state Senate GOP leader, the budget fiasco on top of the stimulus package was all too much to take.

No one faulted Republicans for holding up budget negotiations. They saved the blame for Democrats and the three Senate Republicans who crossed the aisle to break the impasse.

"I think they could have held out. There are a lot more cuts they could have made," said Steve Pyle, 61, who said he was so unhappy with the country's direction that he seriously was considering moving to Australia. "They could start by getting rid of all the illegal immigrants and the teachers unions."

Up and down the quaint streets of Old Town, the sentiment was the same -- driven partly by political ideology but perhaps even more by fear that new taxes might edge residents even closer to the financial abyss.

Southwest Riverside County has one of the highest foreclosure rates in California. Unemployment in the Inland Empire has topped 10%. Construction jobs have dried up, workers are getting laid off or furloughed and businesses have shut down.

Debi Feeney runs Simply Friends, a small antique store in Old Town, with her sister and says she's barely scraping by.

"I agree with how the Republicans handled it," she said as she sat behind the cash register. "I don't think any working person wants to pay more taxes."

Feeney, 56, spent 32 years as a flight attendant for U.S. Airways. When it went bankrupt, she said, her retirement benefits shrank from $1,900 a month to $600. Her husband, a retired firefighter, now works two jobs to help make ends meet.

"I'm really scared right now by what Obama is doing and by what the Democrats are doing in this state," she said.

Across the street at Aloha Antiques, Wendy Sanders, 50, said eight restaurants in Temecula and Murrieta had shut down in recent months.

"People are losing their houses or doing short sales or living in their cars," she said.

A handful of customers browsed the aisle and back room of the store, pausing here and there to admire eclectic offerings such as a large, ornate silver crucifix.

"I don't believe everything would have stopped if this budget wasn't passed," Sanders said. "I support what the Republicans did."

Local GOP activist Adele Harrison predicted new taxes would push the state and country into a depression.

"If it's wrong, you don't vote for it," she said of state lawmakers. "This area is already hurting, and now they give us more taxes? How will people afford it?"

Anger and anxiety have helped energize the GOP throughout the region, already one of the most conservative areas of California.

"My club is bigger than it's ever been, with over 200 members," said Bob Kowell, president of the Murrieta-Temecula Republican Assembly. "It may be the biggest in the state. It's growing because of where we see the country and state going. We have more Republicans on fire now than ever before."

They were burning brightly back at the coffee shop.

By 9 a.m., the small knot of regulars had grown to more than a dozen. They made themselves comfortable in the middle of the room, around a big table strewn with coffee cups and plates of half-eaten muffins. Up on the wall, Fox News played silently.

Each man eagerly chipped in with his own prescription for saving the country from creeping socialism.

"I think if we had some redistricting, then finally our elected representatives would have to answer to the people," Nugent said. "Many of these liberal programs wouldn't be pushed through."

All of those gathered were retired, and most were veterans. They have been meeting here for years, arguing, joking and quite often ridiculing each other.

Dragonetti ribbed Nugent, who served in the Air Force, saying he'd probably never seen a real gun during his stint in the military. He then asked a reporter if he was a "Commiecrat." And when a police officer returned a borrowed mop bucket, Dragonetti quipped, "That's the first time I've actually seen a government employee work."

But as conservative as they are, the current economic realities revealed some contradictions.

Pyle, a retired mortgage banker who spent 24 years in the Marines, spoke passionately against President Obama's plan to reduce foreclosures. At the same time, he worried about his son-in-law, who received a 15% salary cut recently, making it hard for him to pay his mortgage.

"I'm torn," he said. "I'm not for the bailout, but it could help my family."

And Sam Hale, 65, a retired special agent for U.S. Customs, sounded downright bipartisan.

"If they don't pass a budget, they shouldn't get a salary or a per diem," he said. "You have a bunch of allegedly grown men up there who are supposed to know how to make a compromise, but they can't. They are always fighting each other, and you can't do that all the time."

Terry Carter, 65, just smiled behind the counter and kept pouring coffee. The boisterous regulars have helped keep him in business for 22 years. As for his own opinions, he keeps those to himself.

"Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is listen," he said.

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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