Senate leader defends recall effort against GOP lawmaker

State Senate leader Don Perata on Thursday said the recall drive he is backing against a Central Valley Republican will help Democrats pass a budget with tax increases if it succeeds.

If Sen. Jeff Denham of Merced is replaced by the lone Democrat on the recall ballot, it would leave Democrats just one vote short of the two-thirds majority they need to pass the budget in the Senate.

"If I have an opportunity of picking up a Democrat who would support a balanced approach to solving the budget problem, I'm going to do that," Perata, the Senate's president pro tem, told The Associated Press in his first extended interview on the recall drive.

The recall grew out of Democrats' frustration last summer with Denham, who has been viewed as a moderate but joined fiscal conservatives in blocking the budget. Denham refused to break with the Senate's Republican caucus and support the $145 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year.

It already had been passed by the state Assembly, with Republican support, and had the blessing of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Unseating Denham during the June 3 primary election would help avoid massive cuts in state programs and services, said Perata, a Democrat from Oakland. He said tax or fee increases are needed to offset a budget deficit that is projected to be anywhere from $15 billion to $20 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Passing the budget requires a two-thirds vote, which means the support of two Republicans in the 40-member Senate and six in the 80-member Assembly.

"Don Perata just wants to install a puppet," Denham spokesman Kevin Spillane said in response to the Senate leader's comments to the AP. "Certainly that's their plan, is to massively raise taxes if they succeed in the recall."

Perata said Denham ran for re-election in 2006 as a moderate but "immediately made a very hard-right turn" and is no longer representing the interests of his district.

"It's immaterial whether or not he was right that there was a deficit coming," Perata said about Senate Republicans' criticism during last year's budget standoff. "The fact of the matter is we now have a huge deficit now, and he has taken the 'No, I won't tax, it's got to be all cuts.'

"Well, that's going to just decimate the school system, decimate everything else. ... We believe in that district that is not a popular point of view."

Replacing Denham with former Democratic Assemblyman Simon Salinas would bring Senate Democrats within one vote of being able to pass a spending plan over Republican objections.

Perata said he would count on getting the final vote from Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, or another GOP moderate. Maldonado broke ranks to support the budget last year.

"In terms of someone who is willing to look at the overall health of the state of California as opposed to narrow ideology, Maldo's a good contrast to Jeff," Perata said.

Maldonado said he will examine budget proposals and alternatives before deciding how to vote.

"Everything should be on the table, including tax increases. Does that mean I'm going to vote for them? No," Maldonado said. "I think the timing for tax increases is poor. But I agree they should be on the table."

In a two-step process, voters in Denham's 12th Senate District will decide whether to recall Denham and, if that succeeds, elect Salinas to replace him. Denham won re-election in November 2006 and would be termed out in 2010 if he beats the recall.

The district includes all or parts of Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Benito and Stanislaus counties.

Spillane, Denham's campaign spokesman, noted that the professional signature-gatherers and funding for the recall came from outside the district. He said the Senate leader is engaged in "a petty power grab."

Perata defended orchestrating the recall as an outside political heavyweight.

"I didn't sign 61,000 petitions" to qualify it for the ballot, he said. "People in that district did. And the leading supporters are all from the district. So his characterization that it's an outside move - you can never go in and foment something like this. You either have a basis for it or you don't."