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Politics surrounding Maldonado confirmation roiling the Capitol

Republican centrist Sen. Abel Maldonado, the governor’s pick for lieutenant governor who has walked a legislative tightrope with his own caucus,  looms  as a critical player in the 2010 budget fight in both houses of the Legislature.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has said he would like the Legislature to address the state’s $6 billion shortfall in the current budget year while Maldonado is still in the Senate. Steinberg did not explicitly say Maldonado’s cooperation in those efforts would determine whether or not he is confirmed as lieutenant governor, but Steinberg will certainly have some leverage over Maldonado if and when that budget vote happens.

Maldonado has voted for state budgets in the past, but has also been known to hold a grudge. Democrats may need his vote to pass a budget through the Senate – at least to get a partial fix done early in the year. But if they reject his lieutenant governor nomination, that vote and potential future budget votes from Maldonado will be harder to secure.

Democrats are divided over whether confirming Maldonado is tactically sound, from a purely political perspective. The current configuration of Maldonado’s 15th Senate District, drawn to pick up GOP votes for former lawmaker Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz, will disappear after the 2011 census as a voter-approved independent redistricting commission draws new boundaries for the 2012 elections.

The Legislature must act on Maldonado’s appointment by Feb. 22, or the lawmaker automatically will assume office. The confirmation process  coincides with the governor’s unveiling of the 2010-11 state budget, which is all but certain to propose major cuts, borrowings and new revenue to resolve a $20.7 billion, recession-driven shortage.

If Maldonado becomes lieutenant governor, the race to succeed him would likely take place on June 8. The seat is likely to attract top-tier candidates from both parties, including Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, and former Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz.

If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in that June 8 election, the top vote getter from each party would square off in a July run-off. That means the seat would likely remain vacant until after the constitutional budget deadline is passed.

Maldonado in the past has disagreed with his caucus and voted in a favor of Democratic budgets – a move that deeply angered fellow Republicans. On the budget issue alone, then, rejecting his confirmation could help Senate Democrats get a budget through, at least on paper. But turning him down could pose a problem for Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg: Maldonado has a free ride in his district until 2012, and if his confirmation  is rejected, he has two years left in the Senate. If Democrats lead the charge against him, he wouldn’t be inclined to support their budgets.

In addition, if Maldonado is rejected it may ultimately prove to be beneficial to his political future.

“If he was turned down, he might have a better platform to run as a reform candidate for lieutenant governor than if they actually confirmed him. If he is confirmed, it’s a one-day story, but if he is turned down it will be a much bigger story,” said Tony Quinn, a political historian and contributor to The Target Book.

If Maldonado is confirmed, Gov. Schwarzenegger would call a special selection to fill the seat – an election that likely would be consolidated with the June 8, 2010 primary election. In the Senate, Democrats have suggested that the special election might have to be held separately, a cost factor in tough economic times and and a reason not confirm him. But those factors have not proved persuasive in the past, and confirmations have devolved into partisanship as much as anything else.

There is another dimension to a Maldonado confirmation.

The lieutenant governor sits on the State Lands Commission, which  since 1938 has had jurisdiction over offshore oil drilling. The commission in January voted to reject a proposal by a Houston-based firm to sink a slant well from a federal platform off the Santa Barbara coast. Gov. Schwarzenegger favored the plan, which would bring in an estimated $100 million annually to the state.

“Obviously, the most significant policy decision (facing the lieutenant governor) in a lot of people’s minds is his role on the state lands commission,”  said incoming Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. “That’s a legitimate issue that’s going to be before that office, and it’s important to figure out what he will evaluate in making those decisions.”

Former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi resigned to go to Congress. If Maldonado is confirmed, he will sit on the commission and will have a vote on the project, which Garamendi opposed. Maldonado has opposed the project in the past.

The governor, meanwhile, sought to make an end-run around the State Lands Commission by giving authority over the project to his own Department of Finance. That was rejected in the Legislature.


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