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Democrats move toward compromise, even as old rivalries rear their heads

This week, both Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, laid out budget proposals to reporters. The two leaders have been meeting daily and it now appears that the shell of an outline is forming for a plan that Democrats in both houses can agree upon.

But getting there is never easy. Groups loyal to Democrats have seen programs cut or eliminated steadily over the last five years and many have grown tired of the budget mess that does not appear to have any end in sight. That schism has mostly manifest with teachers unions and other groups rallying to support Perez’s plan – a plan that some Senate staffers have privately complained is overly optimistic and offers false hope to groups who will eventually have to take another round of budget cuts.

The relationship between Perez and Steinberg is a new one, but one that will be important in the years to come. Both men are poised to be in leadership for the next four years, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Some of the low-level sparring between the houses over the last couple of weeks may be due to simple tactical differences between the two Democratic leaders. Perez, who is delving into his first budget as speaker, also benefits from having fewer budget battle scars than his Senate counterpart.

But there is something deeper that seems to be woven into the fabric of the budget process itself. Every year, around this time, the latent and ever-present rivalry between the two houses comes to the forefront, providing at least a sideshow and at worst real obstacles to forging a budget solution.

While it is a distraction, Capitol veterans say the rivalry is unavoidable, but rarely a real obstacle. “The former Assemblymembers who are now Senators think they graduated” to the Senate, said Steve Maviglio, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Speaker Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles. “There’s always a ‘we’re better than they are attitude’ that surfaces this time of year.”

If that’s true, there is also an inferiority complex that seems endemic to some Assembly Democrats who are determined not to be seen as capitulating to their Senate counterparts.  
“The old saying is true,” said Maviglio. “Republican are our opponents but the Senate is our enemy. There’s a lot of ‘who can out maneuver the other body’ that dates back to prehistoric times, I think.”

That being said, both leaders downplay the rivalry’s impact on budget negotiations. They note that a compromise is being forged between the two leaders that will contain parts of the securitization proposal in the Assembly plan and the shift certain state functions to county officials outlined by Steinberg this week.

Both sides agree that oil-production taxes will be part of their initial offering, as will massive borrowing to help stave off the most extreme cuts in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal – a proposal that Schwarzenegger himself probably would not sign if passed by the Legislature.

But some differences between the Senate and Assembly remain.  A major difference between the two groups has been in the area of education funding. The Senate proposal has about $2 billion less than the Assembly plan for public schools. But these proposals don’t appear in a vacuum. They come weeks after the California Teachers Association sent out mailers and took out billboards imploring Steinberg to prevent any future cuts for public education. Meanwhile, CTA and other members of the Education Coalition stood with Perez at a Los Angeles press conference to voice their support for the speaker’s spending plan.

Those internecine battles often feed the systemic rivalry between the Assembly and the Senate. Steinberg has been under siege from labor allies for years for recent budgets, and many in the labor community are standing now with Perez in part to send a message to Steinberg.

Another difference is over the Senate plan to raise vehicle license fees to pay for their budget proposal. Perez has made a concerted effort to frame his budget plan as a “jobs budget,” and tried to break the perception of Democrats as simply tax-and-spenders who don’t want to make any cuts to social programs. Though last year’s budget compromise contained a temporary car-tax hike, voters have shown a visceral reaction to the levy before. It was one of the key issues that led to the recall of Gray Davis, and Democrats in the Assembly are sensitive to the politics of their proposal.

Democratic staff in both houses say they’re confident the major issues can be resolved in the next few days. It’s unclear whether the Democratic plan, which will manifest in a report from the joint budget conference committee sometime in the next week or so, will resolve the major issues of revenues and education spending.
But as one Assembly staffer put it, “Democrats should go down kicking and screaming before we talk about suspending Proposition 98. We should go kicking and screaming the same way Republicans do every time we try to pass any kind of tax increase.”

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