CAPITOL PUNISHMENT by Jill Stewart

By Nobody

ISN'T THAT SPECIAL In first days of new era, legislators on both sides of the aisle bec

Surely one reason to give thanks right now is that you need not spend any time in California's statehouse, where the Legislature has unveiled its not-so-Special Session of nasty partisanship and utter failure to grasp the message from voters who elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I was at the statehouse, however.

And I can report that Republicans in the Assembly drew first blood, springing a surprise vote on the Democrats to dispense with the usual committee hearings and rules so they could immediately vote on repealing Senate Bill 60, the illegal immigrant driver's license law.

Had the Republican leaders chatted with Democratic leaders about their desire to immediately vote Nov. 18 on the repeal (by means of a one-page bill that simply states SB 60 is repealed), the Republicans would have learned the Democrats had no intention of voting that day-nor of suspending rules the Democrats suspend only for their advantage.

The Democrats wanted the one-page repeal bill to go to the Transportation Committee for debate, which can take days. And since Democrats control the Assembly, what they say goes.

The Republicans knew this would happen. But the Republicans had something else, besides repeal of SB 60, in mind.

They had in mind embarrassing the Democrats in front of TV cameras that were in Sacramento for the Governor's swearing-in. If the Democrats refused to expedite the vote, the Republicans could cry that Democrats are obstructionist lefties who have no intention of trying to help Gov. Schwarzenegger.

It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with repealing SB 60. The Assembly Republicans have failed to heed Schwarzenegger's call to act differently. The Assembly Republicans are looking like hardcore partisans and quacking like hardcore partisans.

How did Assembly Democrats respond? The Democrats, not at all accustomed to being pushed around by the minority Republicans, came out with knives drawn. Like the hardcore partisans they are, the Assembly Democrats drew blood right back. And they didn't stop drawing blood for days.

The first day went like this (abridged, of course):

What we are getting instead of action, action, action, is delay, delay, delay! -Tony Strickland, Republican, Thousand Oaks.

The people did not say throw away every bit of process!-Darrell Steinberg, Democrat, Sacramento.

Millions of people are disgusted by what they are seeing here tonight! -Russ Bogh, Republican, Cherry Valley.

We are doing what your governor... asked us to do-not come out and throw the punch! -Sarah Reyes, Democrat, Fresno.

I think the Governor should be ashamed of what he sees here! -Juan Vargas, Democrat, San Diego.

That we need to have a bill, so simple, vetted in committee is absolute hogwash! -Dennis Mountjoy, Republican, Monrovia.

The Assembly met for only two hours the first week of the Special Session. Of that, they spent 30 minutes insulting one another and 40 minutes adjourning in memory of dead pals or praising pals who'd achieved milestones.

Forty minutes adjourning. A schoolteacher who came to observe was furious. If I spent this much time commending my peers, I would be behind in my teaching for the semester, she fumed.

At midnight Dec. 5-the deadline by which Schwarzenegger must get approval for his $15 billion bond to refinance the state debt in order to put it on the March ballot-watch the legislators whimper, If only we had a few more hours.

After that first day, Democrats went to work getting payback for how the Republicans embarrassed them over SB 60. They hit back in a meeting Nov. 19 jammed with people wanting to hear from the new Department of Finance director, Donna Arduin, a budget-cutting expert who Schwarzenegger stole from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Forget the cleansed media reports. This is what went down: Arduin was asked to appear at 10:30 a.m. to present her audit and explain Schwarzenegger's $15 billion plan to refinance $12 billion in debt at lower interest, plus a one-time $3.2 billion cost to cover the car tax he rescinded. But Democrat Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, chairing the hearing, double-booked and asked Chief Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill to also explain the budget situation.

Hill went first. Arduin, who Oropeza and the committee well knew had to be at a noon meeting with the Governor, was made to wait an hour and 15 minutes as Oropeza encouraged endless questions of Hill.

Arduin put in a request to Oropeza that she be allowed to make her presentation in time for her meeting with Schwarzenegger. Oropeza refused, saying Arduin could wait. When Arduin was finally allowed to testify, she had 15 minutes left before her meeting with the Governor.

Suffering from a nasty sinus infection, Arduin asked, into the microphone, if she could be seated while testifying. Oropeza refused to allow Arduin to sit down, using the lame excuse that all the members of the committee should see her face. People couldn't believe it. A murmur went through the room. Arduin seemed to hesitate. Was this for real? But Oropeza once again insisted Arduin stand up.

After several minutes of testimony, Arduin pleaded for a chair. Two male legislators jumped up to help her. Oropeza-in the dripping, saccharine voice that makes her one of the most grating legislators-exclaimed, Of course sit down, of course, if you really need to!

A joke spread through the reporters leaning along one wall: Oropeza must have gone to the Cruz Bustamante School of Condescension.

Arduin explained her audit, then answered questions. The panel knew she had to leave. But noon, the time of her appointment with the Governor, passed as Arduin came in for tough questioning by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles. Goldberg was bothered that Schwarzenegger says the $3.2 billion in car tax money he is refunding is an accumulated debt from the Davis Administration.

It should never have been raised, Arduin told Goldberg, of the tripling of the car tax. Arduin said Davis raised the tax because he and the Legislature knowingly chose to spend money the state did not have. Thus, making up for the now-rescinded car tax represents an accumulated debt from the Davis era.

Goldberg asked another question, but Arduin ended her testimony and abruptly left, now late to see the Governor.

Newspapers breathlessly reported that Arduin abruptly left, leaving out much of the mistreatment by Oropeza. The Los Angeles Times, for example, omitted that Oropeza forced Arduin to stand, and that Oropeza refused Arduin's request to testify in a timely manner.

One 13-year veteran Republican staffer I spoke to could not recall any precedent in which a committee chair refused a cabinet member's request to testify in time to make a pre-set meeting with a governor. A Democratic staffer agreed with this, telling me, What you saw there was Jenny Oropeza playing to the Democrats, because on that day she was in the running to become the next Speaker of the Assembly.

Oropeza was showing Democrats she could mistreat a high-ranking Republican after the Republicans embarrassed the Democrats over SB 60. But this backfired on Oropeza. Two days later-partly as a backlash to her bullying Arduin-Oropeza lost the speakership fight to Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat who is notably less antagonistic toward Republicans.

In the Capitol Rotunda, I ran into Democrat Richard Katz, former senior advisor to Gray Davis, and asked him how his party should be behaving.

Gov. Schwarzenegger needs to be successful, and the Democrats need to understand what happened in October rather than deny events, he said. They really need to face reality.

Unfortunately for all of us, as the Special Session marched onward, the Democrats were so infected with partisan anger it wasn't clear if they could snap out of it. Maltreatment of Arduin spread to the normally respectful Senate. There, Sen. Joe Dunn, a Democrat from Santa Ana, in a rare attack on a cabinet member, stated during a budget hearing Nov. 20, Let's have a little fun here, then caustically derided Arduin, who was not present.

Staring at Mike Genest, Arduin's chief aide, Dunn declared: I think, personally, Mike, that you are the director of finance, and she is more of a figurehead.

The Democrats chose Arduin as their whipping post in part because during the recall campaign, Arduin said an audit would reveal obvious, major cuts. Democrats are positively fried about this criticism.

I spoke to Tom Martinez, chief aide to Senate Majority Leader Don Perata. Both are known for fairness toward Republicans. Martinez said of Dunn's attack, That sort of behavior does not happen in the Senate. We do not expect to see it continue. It doesn't reflect most members' desire to work together.

Let's hope Martinez is right. California could be hurt by the childishness in Sacramento. But let's not forget that the Republicans started this cascading series of events, launching the special session by purposely embarrassing the Democrats over SB 60.

I hope it was well worth the 20 minutes of public crowing the Republicans got to perform that first day. â©

Write to jillstewart@SDcitybeat.com.