THE BIG CUTS IN LOS ANGELES public-transit funding by state lawmakers have a sudden impact on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, in his current scandal-struck state, didn’t show up to lobby for his own program. The Legislature stepped into the power vacuum, slashing $336 million earmarked for Los Angeles and imperiling the long-promised Expo Line to the Westside.
The proposed state budget, now weeks past deadline, was approved by the state Assembly with the support of Villaraigosa’s ally and longtime friend Speaker Fabian Núñez of Los Angeles, and aims to take $1.3 billion in gas-tax revenue intended for transit to bail out the state’s general fund.
The loss is a clear setback for Villaraigosa, whose administration is hurtling forward in approving tens of thousands of new units of controversial, dense, high-rise housing in Los Angeles, to be serviced by a now-vanishing state transit budget.
Even before the Assembly raided the gas-tax money, it was being eyed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in May proposed a $1.5 billion gas-tax transfer to the general fund. And the news won’t get better. State Senate Republicans are this week withholding approval of the budget, demanding $842 million more in cuts. Their leader, Orange County’s Dick Ackerman, is being besieged by some of the Republican senators he leads, who are even more fiscally conservative than he is. While the $103 billion spending plan hammered out last week created an aura of compromise, 15 Senate Republicans, led by maverick Senator Tom McClintock, have refused, so far, to join in the freshly frugal bipartisanship.
After Schwarzenegger proposed raiding the gas-tax revenue, Democrats restored the money in their version of the 2007-’08 budget. But with Villaraigosa failing to lobby, there was no hope that the Democrats’ effort would stand. Given the fiscal mood, it is clear that gas-tax funding from the state for L.A.’s badly needed Expo Line is dead.
Despite the bad news for dramatically more congested L.A., the Governator has persuaded the still-new, right-wing Assembly Republican leader, Mike Villines of Fresno, to take some moderate steps in other areas. For example, Villines supported billions in bonds for prisons and prison rehab programs, backed a plan to make sure patients with pre-existing conditions aren’t denied health coverage, opposed a move to strip funding for foster children — and even suggested compromise with the Democrats to fix the state’s widely criticized practice of gerrymandering voting districts to protect incumbents.
Schwarzenegger last year described some of his Republican colleagues as “the wild bunch,” but now expresses optimism about his ability to work with Villines and others. And Villines, who heads a Capitol prayer group and was chief of staff to the very conservative Republican Charles Poochigian — who suffered a landslide loss last year to Jerry Brown for California attorney general — recently declared, “We set aside our partisan differences” to agree on a budget.
That budget, if backed by the California Senate this summer, would whittle the deficit; establish the biggest “rainy day” budget reserve in California history; accelerate the repayment of bonds; make the transfer of $1.3 billion in gas-tax revenues from transit projects like the Expo Line to the general fund; delay for several months a cost-of-living increase for some welfare programs; and preserve public-school and state-university funding.
California is one of only three states requiring a supermajority — two-thirds of the Legislature — to pass a budget, which gives the minority Republicans a major voice. To reach the supermajority, the 48 Democrats in the Assembly and 25 Democrats in the Senate must find eight Sacramento Republicans to agree to their budget — six Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate.
Because the Democrats must woo at least some Republicans, it gives minority conservatives unusual influence over California fiscal matters. Nine Republicans, including Villines, voted for the compromise budget in the Assembly. But so far, on the more skeptical and cost-conscious Senate side in the Capitol, no Republicans have agreed during negotiations to join the Democrats.
In fact, although it has largely escaped public notice, the Senate conservatives actually voted to ban any GOP senator from meeting privately with Schwarzenegger — to prevent, one supposes, his employing Jedi mind tricks to sell them on his budget compromise with the Democrats.
Would that Republicans had exercised this sort of discipline when the state got into its fiscal mess in the Gray Davis years. Up until 2002, when the state plunged into its massive deficit, the Republicans were right in there with the Democrats, enacting tax breaks as the Democrats took on new spending commitments.
But this time, Villines insisted that “$1.2 billion in added spending has to come off the table,” almost all of it for programs and projects Democrats were hoping to expand rather than trim. When Villines prevailed, it killed L.A.’s hope for major transit relief.
DESPITE HIS SEVERE FISCAL WHACK at Los Angeles, Villines looks to play an interesting and key role in California politics — as a thorn in the governor’s side but also as a maturing politician able to moderate his right-wing views.
For example, Villines tells the L.A. Weekly he is willing to work with Schwarzenegger to overcome the problem of Californians who are denied health coverage due to pre-existing conditions. He notes that “600,000 Californians fall into that trap” and argues that many of those denied coverage actually have lesser medical issues or illnesses unrelated to their pre-existing conditions that should be covered. “Those with more severe medical issues,” says Villines, should also be covered, “but their inclusion in the insurance pool should be funded by the state.”
One of Schwarzenegger’s key efforts is his expansive health care proposal, which would require most employers to provide health insurance or pay into a state fund, extract “fees” from doctors and medical groups, and force insurers to provide coverage to all Californians.
On redistricting reform, Villines could also play a key role. His version would employ an independent citizens commission to draw new voting districts — to replace the current wildly shaped boundaries that ignore natural geography, city limits and cohesive communities in order to concentrate voters of the same political party. This herding of like-minded voters together, known as gerrymandering, ensures that voting districts in California remain either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, allowing incumbents to be easily re-elected each time.
Villines is also “open to listening” to some who say the only way to pass redistricting reform is to take Congress out of the equation, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatens a $10 million campaign against altering how the lines are currently drawn.
Villines and Schwarzenegger’s approach — using an independent citizens commission — is more popular in polls than that of Speaker Núñez, who opposes using an independent citizens commission to redraw the lines. His competing reform would use the state’s Little Hoover Commission to draw the districts, but some say watchdog group the Little Hoover Commission is less independent because it is appointed by politicians.
Even as Villines seems ready to mirror California’s more moderate voters’ views, he still seems drawn toward the hardcore partisanship that California voters continually say they do not want.
For example, he recently cast a key vote against modernizing Republican politics in California. Reformers inside the party wanted to encourage independent voters — the fastest-growing voter bloc in California. But the California GOP’s executive board voted 11-9 to exclude independent voters from next February’s Republican presidential primary. Villines and Ackerman went along with that restriction, while moderates like Schwarzenegger and former state Republican chairman Duf Sundheim fought it.
As Villines had told the Weekly, “I will frequently have to represent the views of my caucus.” But Sundheim was outraged, saying, “We moved forward, now we’re moving back.” And indeed, Democrats are welcoming California’s unaffiliated voters, known as “decline to state”s, to their own presidential primary next year, hoping to gain their backing later on, in the 2008 general election.
Schwarzenegger increasingly ignores the party per se and deals with Republicans as he needs to, such as with Villines and Ackerman. This time around, absent lobbying from Villaraigosa, the deal making resulted in a heavy blow for transit-challenged L.A.
Yet the flexibility shown by Villines indicates, at least to some observers, that there is hope yet for a Republican more conventional than the former action superstar to make his mark as a pragmatic problem solver in Sacramento.