News analysis: Steinberg lawsuit offers political dividends

“This case is about separation of powers.”

So begins the petition filed by attorneys for Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in the case of Steinberg v. Schwarzenegger, which was filed in San Francisco superior court this week.

But the case against the governor is as much a political one as it is a constitutional one. And Schwarzenegger’s decision to cut more than $400 million from state programs in the 11th hour of last month’s budget battle has given Steinberg an opportunity to articulate a formal and coherent political opposition to the Republican governor.

It also allows Democrats to blame the governor for the recently passed budget. With the conversation focused on the $400 million in cuts made unilaterally by Schwarzenegger, it allows Democrats to deflect conversation away from the $11 billion or so in cuts they just agreed to in last month’s budget revision.

Whether he wins or loses the legal battle, the benefits for Steinberg are manifold. It allows Steinberg to get back into the graces of Democratic interest groups, who have watched Democrats approve deep budget cuts. It also gives Democrats a political opening to hammer Schwarzenegger, whose approval ratings are already at an all-time low.

Steinberg’s lawsuit grew out of a budget process that left senators from both parties frustrated with their Assembly colleagues. And while Steinberg seemed to be frustrated that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, allowed the budget deal to be rewritten after it had been passed by the Senate, Steinberg seemed to direct his anger toward Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee, D-San Luis Obispo.

Blakeslee ran into problems with his caucus over key portions of the budget vote. In a last-minute deal cut by Blakeslee and the administration, an agreement was made to scrap an attempt to take $1 billion worth of local gas tax revenues. That drew down the budget reserve, and Schwarzenegger opted to restore the budget reserve by making the line-item reductions after the budget reached his desk.

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit Friday, Steinberg called out Blakeslee by name several times, barely able to control his obvious anger.

“Assemblymember Blakeslee was happy about a whole host of things apparently, and this was the agreement that as made in the early morning hours of July 24 to gain the necessary Republican votes in the Asembly to pass the whole package,” Steinberg said. Steinberg refrained from articulating the “juicy adjectives about how I feel about it.”

But Steinberg was obviously angry at Blakeslee, and at Gov. Schwarzenegger. Steinberg said the governor’s decision to make additional cuts was a violation of the handshake agreement made by leaders in Big 5 negotiations.

Steinberg said he “asked the question more than once” during those negotiations to ensure the governor would not make any line-item reductions.  The governor’s office says that all changed when the Assembly rewrote the budget script.

By the time Blakeslee and the governor reached their deal, the Senate had gaveled down its session, and was adjourned for the month. Assemblymembers say that was a violation of the deal made during Big 5 negotiations, and that Steinberg is to blame for what they see as a  breech of Capitol etiquette.

With the Senate gone, it left the Assembly alone to deal with the administration. And when Blakeslee and Schwarzenegger cut their deal, Bass gave her tacit OK, and sent the budget to the governor without the gas-tax provision, and without a controversial oil-drilling bill, which had also passed the Senate.

Steinberg, who has a reputation in the Capitol for being relatively mild-mannered, was “as angry as I’ve ever seen him about anything,” said one Senate Democratic source. After his press conference Friday, Steinberg met with the state’s labor leadership –many of whom had been critical of Steinberg during budget negotiations– to discuss the lawsuit.

While the details of this year’s budget are unique, it is not uncommon to have wrinkles in the budget script. And in some ways, this latest dust-up is emblematic of the tensions that often arise between the legislative houses during key budget deadlines.

But it also crystallizes Steinberg’s frustration with Schwarzenegger, who he believes violated the tenuous trust built between the two during budget negotiations.

“Taking another whack out of the most vulnerable Californians is wrong, it is contrary to what we agreed to and what we fought for, and most significantly… it violates the separation of powers principles,” he said.

Bass voiced her support for Steinberg’s suit, she did not join in the legal filing.

“I have great respect for Senator Steinberg’s legal acumen and skills and I appreciate the leadership he is showing in this effort,” Bass said in a statement last week.  “Senator Steinberg and I are in complete agreement that in his zeal to cut safety net programs the governor overstepped the legal boundaries of his office. Had the Governor not rushed ahead with these cuts, and instead joined us in finding new solutions, we could easily have avoided this situation.”

Members of Bass’s caucus, most notably Caucus Chairman John Perez, D-Los Angeles, had been out front in challenging the governor’s line-item cuts. Perez received two legal opinions about the cuts, and was adamant that they had, among other things, destroyed the trust between the governor and legslative Democrats.

“We don’t have the faith in him being an honest partner in a process right now,” Perez said. “Not only has he violated the law and the Constitution, but he has violated the faith people have in the process.”

Regardless of what the courts say, that message is one that could resonate with the state’s Democratic base.

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