GOP leaders must deliver the talked-up budget plan

SACRAMENTO -- They rose to power as fiscal conservatives and have mounted an aggressive media strategy to push their message.

But for GOP leaders Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Mike Villines of Clovis, now comes the hard part: cutting a deal on the state budget, which is 21 days late.

Democrats are pushing for $8.2 billion in tax increases to help close a $15.2 billion deficit in the $101 billion general fund.

Villines, who is negotiating his second budget as Assembly GOP leader, and Cogdill, who took over as Senate Republican leader three months ago, say tax increases are a nonstarter.

"We've said time and time again ... that tax increases will not solve the problem" and would "only damage an already struggling economy," Cogdill said last week at an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club.

If the impasse continues, the two GOP leaders will face mounting pressure to give in. Schools, state vendors and others miss state payments in the absence of a budget. But because of how legislative districts are drawn, their constituents expect them to keep their no-tax-hikes pledge.

"There seems to be no ability of people on either side to compromise," said Tony Quinn, an editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps political races.

Cogdill's and Villines' districts snake through some of the more affluent parts of the San Joaquin Valley. As a result, their constituents likely would bear the brunt of any tax increase but would see less benefit from state programs that the revenue pays for, Quinn said.

"If there was any major tax increase, they (Cogdill and Villines) would pay a huge price," Quinn said.

The upshot is that individual members feel less pressure to move to the political center. When it comes to the budget, this means Republican members are more likely to hold ranks. It takes a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and Senate to pass a budget, which requires at least two Republican votes in the Senate and six in the Assembly.

"It's much harder for the Democrats to peel off a small number of rogue Republicans the way they used to," said GOP strategist Dan Schnur. "Most Republican legislators who voted against their party on the budget have tended to become former legislators pretty quickly."

Look no further than the Fresno area's Mike Briggs, a Republican who once occupied the Assembly seat that Villines now holds.

In 2001, Briggs went against his GOP caucus to vote for the budget.

Democrats gave him perks -- tax breaks for farmers -- that he said meant a lot for his constituents. But Republicans later used his vote against him when he ran for Congress in 2002. He lost in the GOP primary and lost to Villines when he tried to return to the Assembly in 2004.

GOP turns up the volume

Villines and Cogdill owe their ascendancy, in part, to promoting party ideals.

Assembly colleagues made Villines leader in 2006 after they ousted George Plescia of San Diego. Plescia's short reign was highlighted by deals he cut with Democrats and the governor on public works bonds and a state budget that drew criticism from some rank-and-file GOP members.

Cogdill, meanwhile, was voted in as leader after taking on an influential role in last year's budget talks. Senate Republicans staged a lengthy holdout as they fought for more spending cuts.

This year, Villines and Cogdill have made good on a promise to amplify their party's message.

Together, they've staged news conferences touting proposals to enact a strict spending limit and establish a rainy day fund for future budget years. They've also pushed business-friendly measures.

One proposal would give companies more time to comply with environmental rules. Other measures seek to ease regulatory burdens on small businesses and encourage more state employees to speak out about government waste.

Also, the two leaders have pushed the idea that tax increases could hurt not only the rich, but the middle class. A poster outside Villines' Capitol office, titled "We are not a tax loophole," declares that millions of homeowners would be hurt if lawmakers remove the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Villines said Republicans typically "quietly sit back" and "get beat up in the media for not offering solutions." This year the GOP is proving "we're not the party of 'no,' " he said. "We actually have solutions and ideas."

Schnur, who teaches political communications, gave the two leaders high marks.

"This is the most specific set of policy proposals I've ever seen from the minority party," he said.

But Democrat John Laird of Santa Cruz, who chairs the Assembly budget committee, said the GOP proposals don't address the $15.2 billion gap.

"They don't have a budget proposal out there -- public or private," he said.

The frustrations boiled over on the Assembly floor last week.

"We are not really making any progress on the state budget," said Assembly Member John Benoit, R-Palm Desert. "And that, I think, is deplorable."

Laird shot back that if GOP lawmakers have a plan, "the public has a right to see it, so we can decide how to compromise."

A possible deal might include Republicans agreeing to a temporary tax hike, or to closing some tax loopholes, in exchange for the Democrats going along with some version of the GOP spending cap plan.