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Capitol Journal: Good GOP bills held hostage in budget stalemate

Practical proposals on parks, pensions and welfare fail as Democrats refuse to pass Republican measures without a budget deal.

May 16, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Sen. Bob Dutton, left, confers with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in March. Democrats quashed Duttons bill on welfare debit cards.
Sen. Bob Dutton, left, confers with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

From Sacramento — It just makes sense: A government official who steals bushels of public money shouldn't be entitled to a pension paid by taxpayers.

More logic, different subject: Before the debt-ridden state closes a park, the local community should be given an opportunity to keep it open to the public.

You might think these concepts would be relatively non-controversial, free of political partisanship.

But not in Sacramento, at least contemporary Sacramento.

Two such proposals regarding pensioner-crooks and park closings recently were rejected in the Legislature. The only rational conclusion is that it's because the bills' authors were Republicans and the rejecters were Democrats.

Republicans, increasingly in recent years, have had to buck strong headwinds to pass major bills in the Democratic-dominated California Legislature. There have been a few exceptions, most notably when Democrats adroitly partner with some GOP author on a popular anti-crime measure to avoid being accused of coddling child molesters or rapists.

This year, however, partisan tensions have been particularly strained because of the monumental fight over budget-balancing and taxes.

Gov. Jerry Brown and fellow Democrats have failed to persuade at least two Republicans in each house to provide the two-thirds majority needed to hike taxes. Democrats say that's necessary to finish closing a $26-billion deficit without crippling schools, universities and public safety. Roughly $11 billion already has been gained, mostly with spending cuts.

In the Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is being refreshingly frank: Democrats might treat GOP bills more kindly if Republicans were to deal on taxes.

Steinberg asserts that "when the minority party forsakes government" by denying it sufficient funds to operate, "I don't think we should reward that."

Definition of reward: Passing GOP legislation.

That doesn't mean a rejected bill ultimately "might not be part of an agreement" on taxes, he says. "But come to the table and get a deal."

He adds: "Republicans haven't had as much [legislative success] as they could have if they'd step forward and choose to govern."

A Senate Democratic advisor, who requests anonymity because he's not authorized to be so candid, puts it this way: "We kill their [stuff] routinely. All of it is subject to resurrection.

"Those things are on the [negotiating] table. But they're not going to be kept alive without progress on the budget. There are vehicles out there, places we can go. But we're not going there for free."

One resurrection possibility, the advisor says, is the public pension bill. "It's workable."

The measure would strip public pensions from state and local officials convicted of bribery, embezzlement or other misuse of public funds. The felon could reclaim the money he had paid into the pension system, but wouldn't be entitled to the public's contribution.

This law already applies to elected officials, but not public employees.

The author is Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), who says he was inspired to introduce the bill (SB 115) by Times reports of alleged corruption in Bell, especially by former City Administrator Robert Rizzo.

The bill even has been tacitly endorsed by the governor, who included a similar provision in his proposed pension reform package. But Strickland's measure perished in the Senate public employment committee when only Republicans supported it. Democrats sided with labor unions that argued the bill could punish an innocent spouse who would be denied a needed pension.

Hello! That should be the screwed-up official's responsibility, not the taxpayers. If the official gets caught robbing the public, his spouse can live off Social Security and/or welfare. Toss in Medi-Cal. And that should be the limit of any taxpayer help.

"If we can't even pass this bill, we're not going to get any pension reform," Strickland says. "This one's simple. It's a no-brainer."

There's no way Strickland will vote for taxes. But he's working behind the scenes to make his bill part of the ultimate budget deal.

Steinberg told me he wants to boost taxes now but delay until next year a public ratification vote that would fulfill Brown's campaign promise.

In the Assembly, Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) firmly denies that GOP bills are being targeted in the tax tussle.

"The last thing we want to do is punish people who have been engaged" in trying to reach a budget-tax compromise, he says. Yes, he adds, some Republicans privately have been dickering.

But don't tell Republican Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries of Riverside that there isn't a Democratic conspiracy to torpedo GOP bills until votes surface for taxes.

Treatment of Republicans "is a little more brutal than usual," he contends. "It's more noticeable than in past years. They want the taxes."

Jeffries is author of the parks bill (AB 64). It would encourage the state to negotiate operating agreements with local governments to keep parks open during the budget crisis. The measure fell nine votes short of passage in the Assembly. Only six of 52 Democrats voted for it.

"The best way to keep our parks open is to get a budget deal," Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), chairman of the budget committee, exhorted during the floor debate.

"The bill got held hostage," Jeffries says.

Other measures seemingly have been too.

One, by Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, would forbid the use of welfare debit cards to buy alcohol or tobacco. The bill (SB 417) was quashed by Democrats in the Senate Human Services Committee.

"You'd think such a simple common-sense reform would find bipartisan support," Dutton says.

Not this year, regrettably. At least not until there's a deal. Go talk taxes with Steinberg.

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