Assuming the position: Steinberg finally takes helm of the Senate


It was ten long months ago that Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, was elected by his caucus to be the next Senate leader. Steinberg finally takes the helm on Nov. 30, though for the last several weeks, he has been a part of the ongoing budget negotiations with Republicans leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As he prepares to become the first Senate leader from Sacramento since 1883, Capitol Weekly spoke with Steinberg in his Capitol office Tuesday about the looming budget floor vote, the prospects for bipartisan cooperation, and his legislative agenda.

Steinberg talked about new programs – including a plan to expand health care coverage to the state's 750,000 uninsured kids – and revealed a new internal unit that will audit the effectiveness of state programs.

Steinberg also said he plans to expand the size Senate budget committee, and bring every Senator directly into the budget process. He spokes about his relationship with Don Perata, Karen Bass, Dave Cogdill, and his "big idea" for bipartisan cooperation.

So, what do expect to happen in (Tuesday's) floor vote?

We are going to put a $17 billion package of solutions on the floor of the Senate, and the Assembly is going to do the same this afternoon. It is a package that is of equal cuts and new revenue. It includes significant cuts to education, health and human services, local government – really pretty much across the board.

And on the revenue side it includes the restoration of the vehicle license fee to the 2 percent level that it was in this state for 50 years – from 1948 to 1998. It also freezes the indexing of income tax rates temporarily.

We are going forward here today because, at least from the Democratic side, there is a great sense of urgency, because of the national and international economic crisis and its impact of California's budget.

This is a little bit different than prior deficits. There's always that ideological debate which will no doubt continue today around our level spending versus the amount of money we're collecting. But there's no dispute that since we passed that 85-day-late budget in September that the bottom has dropped out of the economy.

The LAO and the Department of Finance are in agreement that we have dropped when you pro-rate between September and the end of the fiscal year – we've dropped over $11 billion in revenue. So even the governor, who has repeatedly said California has a spending problem, is now saying it's a revenue problem.

This is no longer about any one's ideology or politics. It is about solving a momentous problem that goes well beyond the borders of California. We believe that the only fair way and right way to do this is to cut deep, but to also raise additional revenue.

The response from our colleagues on the Republican side – we already know it. We are ready to discuss a wide array of things.

Do you have any sense of what the Republicans want?

No. I've certainly gotten a good head start here in my new roll, because I've been a full participant in the so-called Big 6 for the last month. I must say, I'm not by nature a hyper-partisan. My whole reason for wanting to be leader is that I've demonstrated the ability over time to solve problems and bring people together. I can tolerate or work with anybody's position on something so long as they have the mindset that they want to solve the problem. And I must say that as I've been participating in these discussions, there is no clarity from our colleagues on the other side of the aisle of what it would take to avoid the state going insolvent.

Nobody has nor will propose a $28 billion-to-$30 billion cut package, because it means cuts to public education and to transportation infrastructure, much less the social safety net that very few members on either side of the aisle will tolerate. It will be interesting to see whether all of the Republican members today vote for all of the education cuts. I'm going to cast votes today that I'm going to hate.

If there's no movement on the other side, why do it?

It is standard to call any sort of floor debate a drill if it doesn't lead to a resolution. But this leads into how I'm going to govern. We are going to follow the process. And we are going to take this debate about California into the public square. And for us, that's the floor of our house.

I am thinking of all kinds of things. I'm going to involve everybody in this budget process one way or another. I'm not going to have this same structure that has existed where one-third of the membership participates in the process and the other two-thirds wait and see what the rest of us come up with.

Does that mean an expanded budget committee…


Or more sub-committees?


We are going to force the action here. I don't consider today a drill, I really don't. I'm hopeful that there might be a break. Whether it's the lame-duck Republicans where the governor might be able to have some influence, or just responsible people who recognize that the alternative to this is doing nothing, and doing nothing potentially leads to insolvency.

We'll put these bills on call and let the negotiation really begin here. But part of the problem around here is that there is too much quiet conversation, and not enough open debate that draws the issues out.

To what extent is the governor participating or not participating in the budget negotiations?

My impression of the governor, which is the same impression I had when I chaired the budget committee in the Assembly, is that he genuinely wants to solve the problem. We have disagreements on pieces of the solution – of this cut or that cut – but that's okay. His mind set is he wants to solve the problem. It's obvious to everybody that his relationship with his own party is not a very strong one, and whether or not he can pull individual members, obviously that's going to be very, very important if we're going to succeed now or next year.

We're not going to sit idly back and hope that the other side will all of a sudden realize that if you're not willing to cut all the way, which they're not, and you're not willing to raise additional revenue, then you're not willing to govern. And it's our job, not just today but next year, to do the only thing we can do – to put forward the best, most balanced, moderate proposals that we can, and to force the debate, in public. That's our job.

I want to move this budget process up significantly. I don't understand why the May Revise has to be the great linchpin for determining the start of the actual budget negotiations in Sacramento. Using that as the linchpin leaves us literally four weeks to negotiate out the differences to meet the June 15 Constitutional deadline.

The May Revise is important – it's a refined revenue estimate based on the April Revenues. We ought to use it as an adjustment document. We're going to shake it up. We're going to shake it up process-wise and we're going to force the debate.

What does the fiscal crisis do to your policy agenda? Is it simply a matter of playing defense?

No. There's a lot you can do. I think it's very instructive to see what the voters did with high-speed rail. In the midst of this fiscal crisis, voters said, ‘We think it is important to invest in the long-term future of California' and to not lose the opportunity to maintain the long-term vision for our state.

That's very instructive for us, because it's our responsibility to grapple with this crisis in the short-term and the medium-term, and begin setting an outside agenda
of beginning to take questions of constitutional and fiscal reform back to the people over the next several election cycles…

You mean to go to the ballot?

Yes. But also, to get off to a fast start demonstrating that the Legislature can be productive. I'll give you a couple of examples.

Renewable energy. The governor signed an executive order a couple of days ago committing to the 33 percent renewable standard. You've got leaders in both houses who have carried legislation on that subject matter. Let's get it done in the first 90-120 days.

Water. A water bond is teed up. Not the conveyance issues. There have been two years of negotiations and the differences have been narrowed to a very small range of issues. Why can't we finalize that in the first 120 days. WE won't put it on the ballot until 2010, but why can't we get the work done?

Kids' health care. Even in the fiscal crisis, Congressman Clyburn goes on Meet the Press and says the first thing the Democratic Congress is going to do is reauthorize S-CHIP. We've got the First 5 commission that's interested in kids' health care, we've got the foundation world. Why can't we work together and put together the first bit of investment and get started on health care reform.

So, you're talking about universal health care coverage for kids?

Yes. We need early victories, a shot in the arm. I don't want to wait until the end of the session.

Voters passed other bonds as well. Are you taking the same message from those, or is it that there is a schizophrenia among California voters?

I do believe there is a disconnect in this building and there is a disconnect among the people between what we say we want and need, and our willingness to pay for it. That's pretty obvious. It is our job to reconcile those two positions, because you obviously can't have it both ways. That's why we find ourselves, to some degree, where we're at.

We need to do a more effective job making the case for why government is not the answer to everything, but certainly is a necessary catalyst to help improve the lives of people.

Along those lines, one of the things I plan to do is to bring back legislative oversight to the state Senate. We're going to establish a Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes. We are going to focus our attention to some degree on the work that California Forward has already been doing – to being identifying tangible outcomes for the public investments we are making, so we can measure whether or not it is making a difference.

Are there specific programs that are queued up to be investigated?

They are compiling as we speak a whole list of possibilities. I want to do this right. I want to pick one or two issues, and build this into the fabric of the institution, and make this part of what we do. It also speaks to transforming the budget process as well. We need to pose the larger questions in our budget process about our priorities and about outcomes.

We'll try to do this in a bipartisan way, it's not going to be a partisan effort. It's going to be out of the Rules Committee, which has Democratic and Republican representation. It's always been my sense that the party that cares the least about government is the party that's railing about accountability.

Democrats ought to be the party of accountability and outcomes. Because we're the ones who believe that government has a role to play in improving people's lives.

There may be instances where we're looking at abuse, but that's not really the intent. The intent is to try to transform the way we think about government and the investments that taxpayers make around outcomes.

What's your sense of how the transition has gone between you and Sen. Perata?

Look, transitions by definition, no matter who they involve, are always a little bit hard. I think that's just a fact. Term limits makes everything hard. But I've gotta tell ya, Don Perata has been great, especially the last several months. If there was any awkwardness it was more early on.

But in the last months, he's been great. During this very intense period of negotiation around the budget, we've worked very well together. Seamless.

Do you think it's gone on too long?

There's no question that 10 months is a long time. But on the other hand, I was able to put my bid for pro tem together in the most seamless way. If you ask members, they will tell you this was the first time they can remember there wasn't really a contested election, it was by acclamation. So the caucus didn't have this distraction of a big fight.

Are there any cultural differences left between the Assembly and the Senate?

It's important to realize that it's the same job. But there are some differences, some by virtue of tradition, but most by virtue of size. Forty members. I can contemplate involving most if not all of the members of the budget process because of the numbers. I think that might be harder to do in the Assembly.

Our floor sessions tend to be shorter. And there's a culture where you get up and talk only if you really have something to say on the floor. It's sort of a different tradition in the Assembly.

But I'm really looking forward to working with Speaker Bass. One of the things we've talked about is that we really want to damp down the unnecessary stuff between the houses.

Some of the tension between the houses is intentional, and necessary. That's why you have a two-house system. You don't want the other house to just rubber stamp the work of the other house as it comes over. But sometimes the tension becomes unnecessary and unproductive.

One of the things we've talked about is getting our respective committee chairs together and say, OK, what do we want to work on together? As far as I'm concerned, the easiest thing in the world to work out is authorship. You have a big package, you agree on the substance first and say, ‘OK, we are dividing this in half. This half, the lead Assemblymember will carry, and this half the lead Senator will carry, and we will announce the deal together.'

I think we can really minimize the unnecessary part of the tension between the houses.

I think we're going to be a good team. She's really invested in the end product. It isn't about who gets the credit.

There's only one thing that we should all measure ourselves by, and that is what we produce. And for me now, it's not about my production as an author. It's now about what does the house, and what does the institution produce? That's the only way I want to measure my success as pro tem: How successful are my colleagues in achieving major public policy advances?

I'm a cause politician. I always have to have a cause. It was after school problems when I was on the city council; mental health and foster care in the Assembly. in the Senate thus far it's been the high-school drop out rate and regional planning. But I have now one cause that overrides them all – to help this institution be more productive.

How's your relationship with Sen. Cogdill?

I like Dave. He's honest. Very honest. He puts it out there. But I want to have more candid conversations with him about how we not only get along well together which I have no doubt that we will — he's a good guy – but how we actually accomplish some things together, and how we actually put together some bipartisan agendas.

I have my big idea on what I think the singular bipartisan agenda ought to be in this state.

I think it needs to be about rebuilding the economy in California. But since that's a very general notion
, here's what I mean: I think we need to be about reforming middle and high school education and linking those reforms directly to the new economy.

Education is a lens through which you see the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people are not receiving sufficient quality education and/or training to be able to think about qualifying for a high-wage job in what we know will be an emerging new economy. Whether it's the Green Economy or the undisputed need to find more people to enter the health-care field, whether it's high-tech/bio-tech, the service economy – we have to be singularly focused on producing the next generation of educated and skilled workers to work in those fields.

When we talk about the achievement gap or education reform or high-wage jobs in isolation, we too often lose people, because we don't connect the dots and we're not specific enough.

I say the dropout rate in California is 24 percent. We ought to set a goal of cutting that in half, or better, over the next six years. We ought to take these niche career academies that exist in high schools throughout California and bring them to scale so that they are fully funded and available to every young person.

We ought to change the relationship between the private sector and our public schools. Business involvement can no longer be seen as a philanthropic add-on when it comes to mentoring or volunteering in our public schools.

We need to link our education system to our next big investments. Look at my Senate Bill 1672 from last year. It was my green career tech-ed bond. We didn't push it given the fiscal crisis. But embedded in that bond is the seed of a much larger agenda that we intend to pursue.

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