Big Five tries to close on elusive statewide water deal

Capitol leaders reconvened in closed-door meetings this week, trying desperately to work out a bipartisan solution to the state’s water problems.

Legislative leaders and senior staff met with the governor for more than two hours Wednesday, after a similar meeting the day before ended amid a heated exchange between Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta.

Lawmakers were also trying to reach an agreement to break a partisan logjam on nearly three dozen bills that stalled in the Senate last month.

The fate of the water deal has been linked to the fate of more than 700 bills currently on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk. Schwarzenegger has until Oct. 11 to either sign or veto those bills. Any bill that does not receive a signature or a veto will automatically become law.

Schwarzenegger has tried to use the threat of the mass vetoes to help force an agreement on water. Earlier this week, the governor suggested to Steinberg that all bills be pulled back from the governor’s desk until a water deal is reached, but Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said Tuesday there was “not necessarily” a linkage between a water bill and the fate of those bills.

In an e-mail sent by Steinberg to his caucus earlier this week, Steinberg told Senate Democrats that the governor had suggested, but not formally asked, that the Senate pull back all bills from his desk until a water deal has been reached.

The connection between a water deal and other bills has angered many members of the Legislature. Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said Tuesday, the governor’s actions “have clearly crossed the line.”

“The legal definition of that behavior is extortion,” Torrico said. “I am sending a letter to the Attorney General urging him to investigate the matter.”

Tuesday’s meeting ended when a months-long feud between Steinberg and Hollingsworth reemerged.

The angry exchange between the two Senate leaders began when Schwarzenegger asked Hollingsworth what it would take for Senate Republicans to support nearly three dozen bills that have already passed the Assembly, but have remained stalled on the Senate floor since the end of the legislative session last month. The bills require Republican votes to emerge from the Senate.

Earlier, Hollingsworth said he would not put up votes for the bills until Democrats agreed to a list of demands that were laid out by Russell Lowery, Hollingsworth’s chief of staff, in an e-mail to senior Democratic staff on the morning of Sept. 11, the last day of the legislative session.

“Senator Hollingsworth and others were party to conversations where it was agreed that Ready Return and the homeowner’s tax credit issues would be completed before the end of session,” Lowery wrote in an e-mail to Steinberg’s senior staff on the morning of the final day of the legislative year. “It is my hope that we might get some movement early on these issues in order to avoid a train wreck on some important two-thirds legislation at the end of session.”  Lowery also mentioned pending legislation providing home buyers with a  tax credit.

The existence of the e-mail was first reported last month by Capitol Weekly.

Lowery’s e-mail also described an authorship dispute in which Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn’s name would appear on a home-buyer tax credit bill. The bill is currently authored by Democrat Anna Caballero, D-Salinas. Ashburn is a Bakersfield Republican.

Hollingsworth has said that Steinberg agreed to resolve all three issues at a later date as part of this summer’s budget deal. Steinberg steadfastly denies that he ever made such a deal with Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth did not comment on Tuesday’s meeting. But last month, he confirmed those three issues were important to him, telling Capitol Weekly, “There were things that were left undone from the budget agreement that needed to be finalized,” Hollingsworth said. When asked if he thought he had a commitment from Steinberg to resolve all three of those issues, Hollingsworth replied, “I think it’s accurate to say that. Yes.”

None of the members involved in Tuesday’s Big 5 meeting would comment about the dust-up between the two leaders. But multiple sources confirmed that tempers flared between Steinberg and Hollingsworth.

Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost says the Senate leader still plans to reconvene the house next week to take up 35 bills that have not yet been decided on. Hollingsworth spokesman Colin Maynard indicated Tuesday that Hollingsworth’s earlier statements about the fate of those bills still applies.

According to sources familiar with what was said in the Tuesday meeting, Schwarzenegger was trying to broker a detente between Steinberg and Hollingsworth, and tried to figure out what Hollingsworth wanted in exchange for Republican support for those 35 bills. When Hollingsworth brought up his wish list, sources say, he was interrupted by Speaker Karen Bass, who said she did not see any connection between Hollingsworth’s issues and the bills before the Senate.

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