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A tense countdown to passage of California's budget

The Legislature's 45-hour session this week to reach a spending deal was fraught with dismay and drama.

February 21, 2009|Evan Halper and Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Just before midnight Tuesday, as word spread through the Capitol that a key Republican negotiator had been unceremoniously ousted by a cadre of anti-tax colleagues, lawmakers were filled with dismay: Budget negotiations were surely collapsing.

Then came an interesting development. Other GOP legislators, enraged and galvanized by what they saw as their more conservative colleagues' recklessness, redoubled their efforts to get a spending plan passed. They would negotiate around, rather than alongside, "The Irrelevant 11" -- the hard-line senators who had chucked their more moderate caucus leader -- and get the job done.

The only question was: Who would cast the final GOP vote needed for a fiscal package that included billions of dollars in tax hikes? There were two options, both men willing to bolt and vote with Democrats for very different reasons.

Earlier in the week, negotiators said, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders believed they had sewn up the vote of Sen. Dave Cox, a longtime legislator experienced in deal making. A 71-year-old from Northern California, Cox had negotiated budgets on behalf of fellow Republicans during the state's last fiscal crisis.

But on the first vote, Cox said no. He had been promised that money from childhood programs he considered unnecessary would be used to balance the budget. He was also promised that transportation projects would be sped up.

Those who had been in talks with him complained of erratic behavior. He would signal his readiness to vote, they said, then pivot and demand concessions that were clear deal breakers -- suspension of the state's landmark global warming law, for example.

His moves were threatening to unravel a deal painstakingly stitched together during three tense months. But people close to Cox say he had made his demands early and was simply sticking to them.

Democrats and the governor began to look for an alternative. They zeroed in on Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), an ambitious moderate with designs on higher office.

They were skeptical. The first of several trips that Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) made to Maldonado's office was not encouraging. The Republican's advice: Work on Cox.

Later that day, Steinberg called Maldonado and Cox to a couple of empty chairs on the Senate floor. On the desk in front of Maldonado was a computer screen with its Internet browser open to the website of the "John and Ken" show, an anti-tax radio program on KFI-AM (640). The site depicted Schwarzenegger, Maldonado, Cox and other Republicans who were willing to vote for taxes with their heads stuck on a sword, fence posts and a toilet plunger.

"What does it take?" Steinberg asked them. "What do we do?" Cox shot back grumpily: "I'm not the leader."

By Monday, Maldonado was saying publicly what his vote would cost. He wanted, among other things, to rewrite the state's election laws, throwing out party primaries and replacing them with an "open primary." Under that system, the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, would compete in a runoff.

"Abel is a very smart politician," said one negotiator. "To vote just to avoid tax increases is not as valuable as being the guy who was the architect of major government reform. You could tell he knew that." Further, Maldonado's chances of winning any future GOP primaries could be damaged by a vote for taxes. An open primary system would change that.

But it would also dilute the influence of political parties and the special interests that support them.

"We did not think Democrats would ever vote for an open primary," said one negotiator.

Most Republicans hated the idea, too. Securing Maldonado's vote, it appeared, would cost too many others.

The next night, the 11 Senate Republicans ousted minority leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto, who had helped negotiate the budget package, in a private caucus meeting in his office. Maldonado, who along with Cox and another senator did not participate, according to several senators, was infuriated by the move. He lashed out at his colleagues in a Senate floor speech immediately after the ouster. And Cox was clearly frustrated; the 11 wanted to start negotiations from scratch.

Meanwhile, nerves grew raw in the Assembly, as worry abounded that Senate Republicans would simply walk away from the table.

Steinberg decided it was time to roll the dice. The open primary system Maldonado was demanding was already in the works as a ballot initiative planned by allies of Schwarzenegger. The measure was probably going to come before voters no matter what.

There was even suspicion that the administration was behind Maldonado's demand -- something both the senator and the administration vigorously deny.

Steinberg held small private meetings throughout the day with other Democrats to try to sell them on the open primary. Many advised Steinberg to wait Maldonado out. There were long, emotional conversations.

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