Leaders suddenly are lame ducks

Times Staff Writers

Even as they preserved the status quo on term limits Tuesday, voters fired the starting gun on races for new Senate and Assembly leaders.

And by giving a thumbs-up to expanded gambling operations for four Southern California Indian tribes, they may have cleared the way for even more deals to add slot machines to tribal casinos. With perhaps as many as 2 million ballots still uncounted Wednesday, the gambling measures, Propositions 94 through 97, were passing by an average of 56% to 44%.

On Proposition 93, the term limits initiative, 54% of votes were "no" and 46% "yes." The measure, whose proponents have conceded defeat, would have allowed three of the Legislature's top four leaders and 31 other lawmakers to run for office again.

Proposition 93's apparent failure keeps California's tight term limits in effect.

Now, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) must exit in December.

Jostling to replace the lame-duck leaders has begun and promises to make the Legislature's top job this year -- closing a $14.5-billion budget gap by the end of June -- even tougher.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican with little support among GOP legislators, will be negotiating the budget with new, or weakened, leaders.

The governor, who had urged voters to pass Proposition 93, said at a Sacramento news conference Wednesday that it might have passed if the Legislature had accomplished more last year.

"I think it is clear that the people felt that the legislators have not performed well enough that they deserve a change there," he said.

Leadership changes in the Legislature won't necessarily weaken Schwarzenegger's hand in budget talks, said Barbara O'Connor, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento.

Though he is also a lame duck, he still has three more years in office.

The timing "works to the governor's advantage," O'Connor said. "It's not as if he's leaving in December."

Schwarzenegger and Nunez get along well, but the governor's relationship with Perata is rockier.

Last month, the Senate defeated a proposal forged by Schwarzenegger and Nunez to extend health insurance to millions of Californians.

"My bet is that they would welcome new blood," O'Connor said of the Schwarzenegger administration.

The transition of power probably will be more chaotic in the Assembly, where at least eight members are trying to line up the 41 votes it takes to be chosen speaker of the 80-member body.

Nunez will probably try to determine his successor.

Among the prospects is Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), a childhood friend of Nunez, who has collected the most money in his campaign accounts, a test of leadership because a speaker is expected to raise money to help his or her members win reelection.

Nunez is also close to Karen Bass, another Los Angeles Democrat, who would be termed out in two years but could depart early to run for the state Senate or City Council.

Other possible contenders include Democrats Fiona Ma of San Francisco, Charles Calderon of Montebello, Hector De La Torre of South Gate, Mike Feuer of Los Angeles, Edward Hernandez of West Covina, Anthony Portantino of La Canada Flintridge and Alberto Torrico of Newark.

Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio said the subject of leadership will be broached in a meeting of the Assembly's 48 Democrats today.

"The speaker wants an orderly transition," he said, "and they'll figure out the best way to do that. The speaker doesn't want to be presumptuous about what the caucus wants to do."

Assembly Republican leader Michael Villines of Clovis, who will not be termed out until 2010, predicted that leadership changes will "make this budget a little bit harder."

In the Senate, Perata called Wednesday for an Aug. 21 election by the Democratic caucus to elect his replacement.

"The vote would be taken, and then after the election in November there would be a smooth transition," he predicted.

Perata has not publicly given his support to a possible successor.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has emerged as the leading contender for Perata's post. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is also interested in the job.

Padilla, 34, is said to have support from some members of Los Angeles' large legislative delegation, but he has been in the Legislature only since December 2006.

Steinberg, 48, was also elected to the Senate in 2006 but had previously served three terms in the Assembly and was budget committee chairman.

Ackerman, the Senate Republican leader, said Wednesday that he may step down in April or May to give his successor a chance to play a role in budget negotiations.

"I'm going to sit down with the [Republican] caucus and figure out what is best," Ackerman said.

Those interested in succeeding him include George Runner of Lancaster, Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta.

It may have been the budget that voters had in mind Tuesday when they upheld the gambling compacts.

Four Riverside and San Diego county tribes are now permitted to add 17,000 slot machines to the 8,000 they already operate.

In return, they will share some of the revenue from new machines by paying the state between $3 billion and $10 billion by 2030, when the compacts expire.

Schwarzenegger said he thinks the issue came down to cash.

"The people felt that we need the money," he said at a news conference Wednesday.

The deals were negotiated by Schwarzenegger and ratified by the Legislature but forced to a referendum vote by opponents.

Schwarzenegger said the vote in favor of the deals will strengthen his hand in negotiations with other tribes that seek new or expanded casinos but do not want to pay "their fair share" to the state treasury.

"I think they got the message," he said.

"So now they will come back and they will negotiate with us and they will pay 15[%] to 25% of their take, because I think that is fair."

On Tuesday, voters were rejecting Proposition 91 by 58% to 42%.

The measure was abandoned by its authors in 2006, after voters passed an initiative that accomplished their goal of protecting transportation funds.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.

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