Capitol budget fight: Part Kabuki, part tragedy — and mostly farce

This week’s installment of Capitol political theater features a battle between a new Assembly speaker trying to establish himself as a new power broker and a lame-duck governor determined to stay relevant and show he cannot be bullied by the Legislature. All of this is part of what Gov. Schwarzenegger derisively calls “the kabuki” of Sacramento politics, and it was on full display this week, boiling over into a war of words and angry exchanges in the Capitol.

It’s unclear how, if at all, the fight over Abel Maldonado’s confirmation as lieutenant governor and the subsequent timing of the race to replace him in the Senate will ultimately impact budget negotiations this summer. But there may be some bad vibes to overcome before lawmakers and the administration can come to an agreement on the state’s spending plan.

Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, delayed Maldonado’s confirmation in hopes that Schwarzenegger would consolidate the run-off election for the Senate seat with the November general election, in hopes of getting a higher turnout.

Schwarzenegger, who had been frustrated at Perez’s decision to delay the confirmation, opted instead to call an earlier election, despite the fact that the August vote will cost the four counties involved an estimated $2.5 million extra.

The strategic game of chicken devolved into a heated exchange, moderated through the media, between Schwarzenegger on one side and Perez and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on the other. Tempers were apparently still flaring Wednesday when Steinberg accused Schwarzenegger of encouraging the state commission that handles lawmakers’ salaries to threaten to cut lawmakers pay “to try to influence public policy.”

The Schwarzenegger administration has been frustrated with Perez since he took over for Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, in March. They say the new speaker was complicit in an attempt by the California School Employees Association to change the ballot summary of Proposition 14, the change to the state’s primary election system backed by Schwarzenegger on the June ballot — a charge Perez flatly denies.

Add to that a $20 billion budget deficit and a bad month during this critical time of personal income tax collections and it looks as if Schwarzenegger’s final budget negotiations could devolve into a prolonged slog this summer.

On the revenue front, personal income tax dollars were falling far below projections. And inside the Capitol, tempers flared on a number of different issues — most pointedly over Gov. Schwarzenegger’s decision not to consolidate an election for Abel Maldonado’s Senate seat with the November general election.

On Wednesday, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, accused the administration of pulling strings at the state board that controls pay for state lawmakers in an effort to extract concessions on policy issues.

Add to that two new leaders among the four legislative caucuses — this will be the first budget as leader for both  Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Republican Leader Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach.

Put those things together and it portends an ominous future for anyone around the Capitol who was hoping to have an early summer vacation.

Tempers flared under the dome Tuesday when Maldonado was sworn in as lieutenant governor. The wrangling over his confirmation and the timing of the race to replace him in the state Senate have set a hostile tone between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the Legislature as budget negotiations are due to begin.

Schwarzenegger had been critical of  Pérez for delaying Maldonado’s confirmation until last week, more than four months after Maldonado was selected by Schwarzenegger.
Democrats wanted Schwarzenegger to consolidate the special election in Maldonado’s Monterey-area Senate district with the November general election. That would have ensured a larger voter turnout and given Democrats a better chance to pick up the seat.

Tuesday, Schwarzenegger called for a summertime special election at an estimated extra cost of $2.5 million for the 15th Senate District. Schwarzenegger may have talked about the need to fill Maldonado’s seat as quickly as possible for a budget vote, but that logic doesn’t hold when you consider the front-runner for Maldonado’s seat is a sitting assemblyman, Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo). A Blakeslee Senate victory would leave an empty seat in the Assembly.

The governor’s decision had more to do with a personality clash and power struggle with Pérez, who  dawdled and drew out Maldonado’s confirmation to the frustration of the governor in hopes of forcing the governor to combine the two elections. While Schwarzenegger would not feud with Pérez publicly, his staff did little to disavow reporters of that notion when pressed Tuesday.

In the end, neither got what he wanted and, in dueling press conferences and press releases, each side had nasty words for the other. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called the governor’s decision a “bonehead move” and said the decision to call an early election “certainly does not put me in a very good frame of mind in terms of dealing with this governor. Pérez called Schwarzenegger’s decision “flat-out fiscally reckless and irresponsible” and “clearly motivated by petty, partisan politics.”

Steinberg vowed not to let his personal dislike or mistrust of the administration affect the way he handles budget negotiations, “no matter how I might feel about the governor and his actions.”

Schwarzenegger deflected any talk of tensions Tuesday saying its being encouraged by the media. When asked about Steinberg’s comments, Schwarzenegger said, “for you guys it’s always a lot of fun when people argue and fight in the Capitol and that sells tickets. But I don’t want to get into that, because I want to work with him.”

Things didn’t get much better on Wednesday when Perez said “the governor unilaterally and irresponsibly chose to set a different day.” Perez said the decision “was fiscally irresponsible and quite frankly it was political. It was motivated to chose an election date that would result in more Republicans than Democrats coming out to vote.”

Steinberg made clear he would not shed many tears when Schwarzenegger is termed out of office.

“We are going to do our very best by the people of California and come next December and January, we’ll move on.”

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