Budget battle in letters: Grocers ding SEIU, Senate leader calls on sheriffs

The California state budget is taking on the characteristics of a Victorian romance: lots of letter writing, but very little in the way of consummation.

On June 1, the California Grocers Association and several other groups sent a letter to the two Republican leaders in the Legislature informing them that they did not agree to have the name of their organizations used in mailers by Stand Up For California. This is a group backed by the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 which has been pressuring GOP legislators to agree to let voters have a say on taxes. A spokeswoman for Stand Up replied that they were merely truthfully stating these groups’ support for Jerry Brown’s tax plan.

On June 6, meanwhile, a top aide to Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, sent out an invitation to Republican Senators “to call their sheriffs and the superintendents of the school districts in their Senate districts” to write letters in which would describe “the cuts they will have to make, worst case scenario (if the Senate must pass a budget without continuing existing revenues).” The email from longtime aide Kathy Dresslar states, “Our floor session on Wednesday and Thursday will include the reading of these letters aloud on the floor of the Senate.”

It’s all part of a the maneuvering around the issue of letting voters have their say on extending existing taxes — which itself goes back to a campaign pledge by new Gov. Jerry Brown. This — along with the departure of certain GOP legislators who could be counted on to trade their budget votes for benefits to certain pet causes — has complicated what had become the traditional pickoff strategy for getting the small number of GOP votes to pass a budget with new revenues.

Then there’s the added complication of a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll which appears to show voters are in neither camp. According to that June 1 release, 62 percent of voters want a chance to vote on the taxes. But the same poll shows that only 46 percent of them would actually approve these tax extensions if given the chance.

The SEIU/Stand Up campaign was designed to put pressure on GOP lawmakers to at least give voters a chance to decide on these tax extensions. They’ve been filling constituent mailboxes with literature attempting to educate people about what these cuts could actually mean for them, and urging them to contact their legislators.

But Ronald Fong, president of the Grocer’s Association, said his group’s name and others were used in some of these mailers without permission.

“To set the record straight, our organizations were not consulted,” states the letter to Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare. It goes on to say “we would not, however, have participated …had we been contacted in advance.” Eleven others groups also signed on, including the California Cotton Growers Association and California Citrus Mutual.

But Stand Up never claimed these groups supported their campaign, said Mary Gutierrez, communications director for SEIU California and a spokeswoman for Stand Up. They were merely restating the endorsements these groups have given to Brown’s plan to put tax extensions in front of voters.

“The mailer simply contains a list of organizations that have endorsed the Governor’s proposal,” Gutierrez said. “You can’t have it both ways by taking a public position on an issue and then objecting when it’s not convenient for others to know about it.”

The letter out of the Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg’s office appears to be aimed at creating a floor debate that would frame the cuts in real terms — but with the information not coming from legislators themselves, but from law enforcement and educators, two groups who voters have been reluctant to hit with budget reductions. Throughout negotiations, Steinberg has talked about how the cuts would hit GOP districts harder. At one point, he even mentioned an idea of specifically targeting GOP districts with cuts, echoing an idea first brought up by Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

“We want to make sure everyone knows exactly what’s at stake, no matter what party they represent,” said Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for Steinberg. “We all represent California. We wanted our Democratic members to do this, and why not ask the Republican members to do the same?”

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