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State Democrats decline to endorse 3 of 6 ballot measures

Efforts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders to win voter approval of six budget measures on the May 19 ballot grew more difficult Sunday when a sharply split state Democratic Party declined to back three of them.

The mixed verdict by more than 1,200 delegates to a state party convention came after a nasty floor fight over the grim menu of proposed solutions to California’s severe budget crisis.

“We’ve got all kinds of divisions,” Art Pulaski, leader of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, said of the fractures among unions that drove the party’s internal rift. “It’s not unusual for us.”

Republicans, too, are split on Propositions 1A through 1F. The state Republican Party has broken with Schwarzenegger, its standard-bearer, and begun fighting the measures.

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Taken together, the muddled messages from California’s two major parties threaten to fuel the sort of voter confusion that often spells doom for complicated ballot measures.

The propositions stem from a byzantine deal that lawmakers struck with Schwarzenegger in February to break the political impasse over closing a $42-billion budget shortfall that put California on the brink of insolvency.

On Sunday, the Democrats rejected recommendations from their party’s legislative leaders to support Propositions 1A, 1D and 1E, staying neutral instead. The party endorsed Propositions 1B, 1C and 1F.

Proposition 1A, the most contentious among Democrats, would create a state spending cap and rainy-day reserve -- steps pushed by Republicans -- while extending billions in new tax increases for up to two years.

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“Help us get to the other side of this crisis,” state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, one of the plan’s brokers, urged fellow Democrats. “Help us to get to a place where we can reinvest in education and healthcare.”

Extending the tax hikes would produce $16 billion for future budgets, he said, and a companion measure, Proposition 1B, would restore $9.3 billion in school cuts starting in 2011. Proposition 1B, backed by the powerful California Teachers Assn., will take effect only if 1A passes.

But Willie L. Pelote Sr., political and legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ California chap- ter, countered Steinberg by bellowing across the vast convention hall that the party must “stand against Republican tyranny” by voting down Proposition 1A.

“Proposition 1A is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen,” hollered Pelote, who represents thousands of public employees who fear that a spending cap would put their jobs in jeopardy.

Both sides wielded teachers to beseech delegates to vote their way on 1A, lest classrooms face devastating cuts. Both also argued that their opponents were playing into Republican hands.

When the delegate vote on 1A fell just shy of the 60% needed for an endorsement, Steinberg, improbably, said he was happy with the result. “I consider it a convincing victory,” he said of the loss.

More heated exchanges took place over Propositions 1D, which would free for other purposes more than $600 million now dedicated to children’s programs, and 1E, which would do the same with more than $225 million in mental health care money.

Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro of Arcata said the mental health programs were worthwhile. But when voters approved Proposition 63, the 2004 measure that raised income taxes on the wealthy to pay for the programs, they did not anticipate “the worst budget crisis in the history of the state since the Great Depression,” he said.

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An emotional retort came from Anne Zerrien-Lee, a Highland Park teacher who said her 39-year-old son was schizophrenic. She told delegates that Proposition 1E would “kill people who are now receiving treatment.”

“My baby is a flesh and blood baby,” she said. “And I don’t want him thrown under the train.”

Of the measures that won the party’s support, 1C would borrow $5 billion against future lottery revenue to generate quick cash to narrow the budget gap, and 1F would deny lawmakers and statewide elected officials pay raises in years when the state is running a deficit.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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