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GOP's 'leverage' is tantamount to extortion

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In his former life, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in the action-thriller "Collateral Damage." Last week, he had only a bit role in the collateral damage inflicted by fellow Republicans in the state Senate.

In the flick, victims included his wife and son. In the Senate, they include millions of battered wives, children, home-buyers, taxpayers. . . .

On screen, Schwarzenegger played "Gordon Brewer," a Los Angeles firefighter who saw his family blown up by terrorists and was out for revenge.

In Sacramento, the closest thing to a Gordy Brewer is Democratic state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who witnessed a favorite bill being snuffed by Senate Republicans.

"This is the pro-business, the fiscally responsible party -- or at least that's what they keep telling us," Lockyer says. "And it's getting annoying. It's irresponsible and it's ridiculous."

The bill advocated by Lockyer was little-noticed and noncontroversial, but vital. It would have given the treasurer more wiggle room to renegotiate so-called letters of credit that are about to expire with banks. Without the legislation, he says, the state could end up paying banks an extra $850 million over the next two years.

"It got all botched up with a temper tantrum," Lockyer says. "What's pretty clear now is this: Senate Republicans will abandon domestic violence victims, cops, firefighters and taxpayers to do the bidding of corporate interests."

Republicans say it's more about an internal spat with Democrats.

"In order for us to achieve bipartisan agreements . . . we have to establish and maintain a level of trust that a deal is a deal," Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta said in a written statement. "It's not one, two or three items that we're negotiating over. It's one big item: trust."

Hollingsworth contended that "the Democratic leadership did not uphold their previous budget agreements."

But the minority leader wasn't available to discuss exactly which agreements he thought had been broken, and his staff said it didn't know.

Whatever the beef, there could be wide, unintended damage to noncombatants. The Republican weapon was blatant abuse of the two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of many bills.

The two-thirds rule is not used merely to protect taxpayers from politicians trying to reach deeper into their pockets. It's used by special interests -- mainly big business -- to game the system; a tool handy for legislative leverage, or extortion. If you don't give us what we want, we'll withhold the votes needed for the two-thirds.

It's about buying and selling. Last Friday, at the all-night windup of this year's regular legislative session, Democrats weren't in a buying mood.

This is what happened, according to Democrats, and Republicans aren't exactly denying it: The Senate GOP blocked more than 20 bills requiring a two-thirds vote because Democrats wouldn't cave on three unrelated demands.

One demand was the elimination of a program, called ReadyReturn, that allows low-income earners to have the state do their tax returns free. Intuit wants these people to buy its software product, TurboTax. Since 2005, the company has donated to the political coffers of three-fourths of the Senate, The Times reported Tuesday.

Another GOP insistence was that a big corporate tax break enacted as part of the February budget deal be tweaked to help more businesses, especially Chevron.

The third demand was that Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield be made the lead author of a bill to provide $10,000 tax credits for people buying newly constructed homes. In February, after he agreed to vote for a tax increase, Democrats gave Ashburn a bill setting aside $100 million for such credits. But because of state accounting rules, only $70 million has been claimed. The new bill would allow the other $30 million to be used for tax credits.

Here, I suspect, we get into pure partisanship as well as pride. The author of the new housing credit bill is Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas, who intends next year to run for an open Senate seat now held by a Republican. The GOP would rather that she not be the successful sponsor of a popular bill.

The housing credit bill was one of the Republican victims.

Other casualties included bills to keep dozens of domestic-violence shelters from closing, to help cities and counties borrow while the state raids their treasuries, to distribute federal money to counties for swine flu treatment, and to implement a new hospital fee that would qualify the state for $2 billion in federal money.

No problem, Hollingsworth asserted. Assuming that the governor soon calls a special session on water, "that will be the time to take up all these measures and fulfill the commitments made earlier in the year."

Ashburn candidly defends blocking the legislation: "This was an opportunity for Republicans to have some leverage." Concerning the merits of measures buried in the fallout: "The subject matter of bills at that point was secondary to what the [GOP] caucus had decided to do with them."

"I was embarrassed," says Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, the only Republican to cross party lines and vote for the bills. "I said, 'I'm here to govern.' They wanted all three things or nothing.

"The two-thirds vote is a good tool when put in the hands of people who are reasonable, pragmatic and open-minded. But partisans use the two-thirds as a tool to hold up the Legislature."

Schwarzenegger's bit role was vowing to veto all bills until the Legislature passes water, prison and energy measures he likes. Republicans may have taken a cue from that.

In the movie, Schwarzenegger threw a firefighter's ax at the terrorist leader, and that solved the problem. Governing is trickier.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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