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Democrats Take Tax Plea to GOP Turf

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Times Staff Writers

Nearly 30 Democratic members of the Assembly fanned out into enemy territory Tuesday, finding pockets of support but also resistance and even hostile crowds as they beseeched politicians in Republican districts to support higher taxes as part of a budget resolution.

Democrats warned mayors and county supervisors from El Centro to Amador County that local government will suffer mightily if state lawmakers are forced to balance a budget shortfall estimated at $38 billion with spending cuts alone. Some found sympathetic audiences; others faced anti-tax protesters.

In El Dorado County and the city of Folsom, politicians declined to meet with the Democrats.

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Republican lawmakers, the ultimate target of the two-day “Campaign to Save California,” dismissed it as a waste of time with just six days to go before the state’s new spending plan is supposed to be in place.

“The circus is in town,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City), “but it doesn’t have any elephants. It’s just a dog and donkey show.”

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) faced a hard sell in San Bernardino County, where, to no avail, he urged supervisors to support a budget plan that includes a sales tax increase.

The board, which consists of four Republicans and one Democrat, grilled Steinberg on the source of the budget problem, with several members blaming Gov. Gray Davis and Democratic leaders for creating the crisis by overspending.

Ten protesters from an Apple Valley group that called itself the California Tea Party carried placards into the board chambers, opposing any tax increase.

Steinberg said he didn’t want to turn the meeting into a partisan debate. “I come here, yes, as a Democrat, but not as a partisan,” he said.

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San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus asked why the governor and the Democratic leadership did not begin paring the budget two years ago when it was apparent that trouble was on the horizon. He noted that San Bernardino County has been cutting its budget for the last two years. “I have seen no leadership coming from the governor’s office,” he said.

Steinberg said the last two budgets were adopted with the support of state Republican lawmakers. “On a bipartisan basis, we probably should have done some things different,” he said.

After more than an hour of discussion about the budget, the supervisors moved on to other business without voting on Steinberg’s request to support a tax increase.

Things went more smoothly in Ventura County, where Republicans hold a slight advantage in party registration. Democratic Assemblywomen Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara and Fran Pavley of Woodland Hills got a warm reception from the Board of Supervisors.

‘Wake-Up Call’

Supervisor Linda Parks, a moderate Republican, joined her Democratic colleagues in thanking the legislators for coming. They voiced support for the Democrats’ plan to both raise taxes and cut spending.

Parks called the budget deadlock a “wake-up call” for local government.

“This is something we are all in together,” she said.

Supervisor Kathy Long said county leaders know that some spending reductions will be inevitable. But it will be impossible to reach agreement if Republicans hold fast to their pledge not to raise taxes, Long said.

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“I applaud Keith Richman,” she said. “He has taken an outstanding, courageous action.”

Richman, a Republican Assemblyman from Northridge, is the sole member of his party in the Legislature not to insist that the budget be balanced without tax increases. The Republicans blame excessive spending by the dominant Democrats for the state’s off-kilter finances.

The Republican resistance to taxes has so far prevented Democrats from working Capitol corridors to peel off the few necessary votes as they have in past years. “We’ve put everything on the table,” said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). “We can’t get anything on the table from the other side.”

Goldberg spoke to a reporter Tuesday on her way to address the Orange County Business Council, after meeting with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the mayor, police chief, fire chief and city manager of Fullerton. Today “we do Encinitas, Escondido, Chula Vista, San Diego, then we hang on to the last flight out to Sacramento,” she said.

On Thursday, the Assembly is expected to vote on a budget plan drafted by Democrats that proposes the least severe cuts to local government of any proposal so far by legislators or the governor. It would cut cities and counties and redevelopment agencies by $600 million a year for three years.

In Fullerton, which is represented by Republican Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher, Goldberg said local officials “understood our dilemma.”

“They said they would do what they could do to help,” Goldberg said, adding that city officials suggested that if state lawmakers must cut the general funds of cities and counties, they should give local governments a way to levy their own taxes or use redevelopment money.

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Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson -- whose idea it was to appeal directly to local fire chiefs, business leaders and city managers -- gave himself one of the toughest assignments in the tour: He pitched new taxes to the entirely Republican Board of Supervisors of suburban Orange County.

“There is a price tag that’s attached to a civilized society,” Wesson (D-Culver City) told the board. He warned that solving the state’s budget shortfall with cuts alone “will literally kill people.”

After an hourlong session in which several supervisors opened the door a crack to new taxes -- as long as they are packaged with significant reforms in local government financing and workers’ compensation insurance -- Wesson said he was willing to come back to Orange County to talk about the budget.

“It’d be a pleasure to come down and chat with people who are sane,” he said.

Republicans are outnumbered in the Assembly 48 to 32 and 25 to 15 in the Senate. But at least eight Republican votes are needed to pass a budget because the state Constitution requires a majority of at least two-thirds.

Democrats want to plug much of the deficit by raising the sales tax half a penny and earmarking the proceeds to pay off a $10.7-billion loan over the next five years.

“People say that if we taxed the public 100% of their income,” Orange County Supervisor Jim Silva told Wesson, “there’d still be a bureaucrat who would be saying we need more money.”

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Claremont McKenna College government professor John J. Pitney Jr. called the blitz unlikely to immediately change Republican minds. Probably, he said, Wesson hopes that mayors and police chiefs will help “soften” Republicans for an eventual concession on taxes.

“In the end, after a lot of fighting,” Pitney said, “there may be a compromise that involves new taxes, but that compromise will be the outcome of backroom arm-twisting, not outdoors public relations. What he [Wesson] is trying to do is to change the atmosphere of the backroom discussion.”

In the process, politics was unavoidable. Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who was dispatched to the Imperial and Coachella valleys turf of Assemblywoman Garcia, said in a press release that Garcia “has yet to vote for a bill that cuts the budget.”

‘Balanced Cuts’

“Republicans in the Legislature are holding California hostage by not supporting any tax increase, while not voting to make the necessary, balanced cuts needed to solve our budget crisis,” Leno said.

Garcia said she hasn’t voted for the budget bills that include cuts because she doesn’t want to hurt senior citizens and children.

Asked where she would cut government services, Garcia said she would consolidate the Department of Social Services computer systems and limit state-funded child care.

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Catherine Saillant in Ventura County, Seema Mehta in Riverside and Tina Daunt in Claremont. Pasco reported from Orange County, Martin from San Bernardino County and Vogel from Sacramento.

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