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Cogdill, though ousted, saw the right path for the GOP

March 30, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Six weeks afterward, state Sen. Dave Cogdill still is astonished that Republican colleagues would dump him as minority leader in the heat of a budget battle.

"The timing certainly was a surprise," he says. "I think it was unprecedented. I don't know that it's ever happened before."

Many legislative leaders have been shoved overboard after a policy fight had played out, or after an election in which the party had lost seats. But none come to mind who have been relieved of command as bullets still were flying.

In this shocker, Senate Republicans didn't change horses in the middle of the stream; they had practically already crossed it. They wanted to go back.

Cogdill, 58, a Modesto real estate appraiser, is a pragmatic conservative -- yes, there are some -- whose sin was unforgivable for the hard right: He helped negotiate a $42-billion deficit reduction package that included a $12.5-billion temporary tax increase.

It also included $16 billion in spending cuts and -- most significant -- a spending cap and enhanced reserve fund designed to keep Sacramento out of future budget holes.

The spending controls will be on a May 19 ballot as Proposition 1A, along with five other budget-related measures.

But Prop. 1A is in trouble, based on polls. It's opposed by interest groups on the left who fear any spending restraint. And it's under attack from the right by anti-tax factions because 1A would extend the tax hikes for up to two years. They'll be in effect for at least two years regardless of 1A's fate.

Cogdill has been joining Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines (R-Clovis) on the 1A campaign tour as a backup quartet to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Absent is new Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), who adamantly opposes Prop. 1A, along with most other GOP legislators. The spending cap isn't worth the extended tax increases, he says.

Cogdill is a soft-spoken man -- a trout-fishing addict -- who doesn't tend to say a lot. But he was very talkative when I interviewed him in his new, reduced-size Capitol office last week.

A temporary tax increase, he asserted, "is a price worth paying in order to get permanent spending reform." For fiscal conservatives to oppose Prop. 1A "is shortsighted" because "it's the best chance we've had to control spending. It's a landmark.

"They say, 'Politics is the art of the possible.' This is a good example. It's not perfect, but it does the job."

Recalling the tense final budget negotiations between Democrats, Republicans and the governor, Cogdill says: "We pushed this thing to the absolute brink. We were within hours of shutting down hundreds of construction projects and laying off tens of thousands of people and subjecting the taxpayers to huge penalties for shutting down those projects. That's a hidden tax increase."

Cogdill says he believed most Republican senators "knew how bad it was. They knew what had to be done, even if they weren't going to vote for it" personally.

Turns out most wanted to renegotiate. Some were even willing to let the state go belly-up.

"Several wanted the state to go off the cliff," says Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria).

"They said, 'We need to prove a point that the majority party got us into this mess.' And my line was, 'Then what?'

"Only hyper-partisan people believe it's good to send the state off a cliff to prove a point. Republicans in this building are way out of touch with reality."

In a midnight caucus, Republicans bounced Cogdill and installed Hollingsworth, certain that would force new negotiations. The coup had the opposite effect. It pushed Maldonado and Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) fully into Cogdill's camp. After some Democratic incentives involving passage of pet bills, Maldonado and Ashburn cast the final votes needed for the tax hikes.

Cogdill calls Prop. 1A "an incremental move in the right direction."

"We Republicans don't seem to be able to deal with incrementalism," he laments. "Democrats have proven to be masters. It's something we rail against. If we don't get it all and exactly the way we want it, then we reject it out of hand. This is the most recent example.

"Democrats, with incrementalism, can ultimately get to wherever they want to go. It's the way they operate."

One has only to look at the health and welfare system.

If voters reject the ballot props, Cogdill doubts any Republican will vote for another tax hike to fill the new deficit hole.

He reasons: "That would be a pretty loud statement by voters that they're willing to see what the bottom of the cliff looks like. 'Just don't raise my taxes.' "

Villines agrees: "We're giving voters a chance to say, 'Get together and compromise.' If they reject it, what they're saying is, 'We don't want parties working together. We want partisan warfare.' "

Both Republicans expect that Democrats would try to raise taxes -- calling them "fees" -- on a simple majority vote rather than the normal two-thirds. They did that in December and Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. He might not again. Courts would decide the legality.

Cogdill's reign was short, less than a year. Then he was found lacking and booted.

But it's easy to lead a small herd going downhill. It's tougher to lead uphill headed in a different direction.

Better to try and be tripped than to tumble down the bluff with the endangered herd.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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