Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freshman in GOP cross hairs after tax vote abstention

SACRAMENTO — Freshman Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, has barely dipped her toes into the roiled waters of the Legislature but is already facing heat from Republicans — for a vote she didn't take.

She and three other Assembly Democrats, all of whom won seats previously held by Republicans, did not vote on the first major piece of legislation that came their way: the Democrats' proposed $9.3 billion revenue increase as part of an $18 billion deficit reduction plan.

The plan was approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though the two sides are in the midst of budget negotiations that they're hoping to finalize this week. Overall, the state is faced with a $42 billion deficit for the next 18 months, and all but legislative Republicans — who have refused to participate in the negotiations — agree that revenue increases must be a part of the solution.

Still, revenue increases are a touchy subject, particularly for Democrats in competitive districts. The four Democrats who passed on the vote two weeks ago are now the topic of a conservative blog, Profiles in Cowardice. More importantly, they're targets of the state Republican Party, which accused them of skipping a vote that could have political repercussions in their moderate districts.

"Democratic leadership knows their ideas for raising taxes are deeply unpopular, especially in these marginal districts, Advertisementand they know we're coming after them," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the state GOP. "They want to provide some cover to allow them to hide somewhere instead of taking important votes and standing up and being accountable for their votes."

Buchanan's sprawling 15th District stretches from Contra Costa County into Sacramento County and was held by Republican Guy Houston over the past six years. Riding the wave of change embodied by President-elect Barack Obama, Buchanan defeated her GOP opponent, Abram Wilson, this fall by less than 5 percentage points.

The four to withhold their votes were Buchanan and fellow freshmen Assembly members Alyson Huber, of El Dorado Hills; Marty Block, of San Diego; and Manuel Perez, of Coachella. Their votes were not necessary to approve the bill because Democrats needed only 41 of their 50 caucus members to vote for a bill that combined tax swaps and fees they said didn't need a two-thirds majority required for tax increases.

Republicans say that by abstaining on the revenue increase, Buchanan is signaling she will approach her job with a political calculus that ensures her re-election in 2010.

"They're being awfully Machiavellian," said Jon Fleischman, a Republican activist who publishes the conservative blog The Flash Report. "Seeing them calculate like this already is an indicator they know they're on the front lines."

Buchanan said she abstained because she didn't want to contribute to the partisan bickering with a vote that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would veto.

"When we have a bipartisan solution that will be signed by the governor, I will vote for it," Buchanan said. "I came to Sacramento to reach across party lines and to find bipartisan solutions to our problems and end the gridlock. So far, it hasn't been a bipartisan approach."

Schwarzenegger has said he approves the revenue increases in the Democrats' $18 billion deficit reduction plan, but based his veto on his objection to the economic stimulus portion of the package, for which Buchanan voted. Schwarzenegger is seeking labor and environmental concessions that would clear infrastructure projects more quickly.

Protecting vulnerable members from difficult votes is standard for legislative leaders, said Tony Quinn, a co-editor of the California Target Book and former Republican legislative staff member.

"With a majority vote strategy, you don't have to march all your Democrats off the cliff," Quinn said. "Now, these people can go home and say I vote with my caucus when I agree with them and vote against it when I disagree. You have to show a little bit of independence."

Buchanan insisted that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, "did not tell me how to vote. There was no saying, 'This is how you should vote to protect yourself.'"‰"

She said her main reason for not voting on the revenues was that she opposed the sales-tax increase, preferring instead "to focus on the highest income bracket, though that doesn't mean in the future I won't vote" for a sales-tax increase.

Buchanan said she would likely vote for a revenue bill once Schwarzenegger comes to agreement with Democrats to help start up delayed infrastructure projects, though she's "reluctantly OK" with sidestepping the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds majority on tax increases.

"I'm hoping to get a call from the speaker so we have something to vote on," she said in a phone interview from her Lake Tahoe cabin.

Buchanan said she's not concerned about what Republicans will say about her in the next campaign.

"One thing I learned in my campaign is Republicans will attack me however they want," she said. "If they want to paint me in a certain way, they will do it regardless."

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