The newly elected Senate GOP chief sat down with The Sacramento Bee's Capitol Alert for a wide-ranging interview this week talking about everything from trimming the education budget to his relationship with other members of the Big 5 to internal Senate Republican caucus politics.
Sen. Dave Cogdill, a Modesto Republican who represents parts of Mariposa County and the city of Chowchilla, won election as the next Senate Republican leader earlier this month and will officially become leader on April 15. He’s expected to hold the post for quite some time – he’s not termed out until 2014.
“I think my reputation is pretty well established in this building,” Cogdill said in the interview. “People see me as a straight shooter, an honest person that doesn’t play games. I’m a pragmatist. I look to find practical solutions to the problems that confront us.”
But with a multibillion dollar deficit and the GOP holding only a small minority in the Senate (15 of 40 members), Cogdill faces challenges from the outset.
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Cogdill said the balancing budget – where Republican votes are needed – is his top priority. But don’t expect him to bargain away GOP support quickly. Cogdill said of last year’s 50-plus day budget standoff, “We didn’t take it as far as we should have.”
Still, he pledged to “find that middle ground.” He inherits a Senate Republican Caucus that has been openly divided into two factions, one led by current Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman, the other by Sen. Jim Battin, who twice unsuccessfully made bids for Ackerman’s job.
But Cogdill said he expected caucus relations to improve, in part due to term limits. “A lot of the parties that have been at loggerheads will no longer be members of the caucus,” he said.
Here’s the interview with the newest member of the legislative leadership:
What are your chief goals as Senate minority leader?Dave Cogdill: Well, of course, the biggest thing on our plate is the budget. That, understandably is going to take up the majority of our time this year – it does in most years, but this year that will particularly be the case.
That’s got to be our first priority – to figure out how we are going to get this state back on an even keel, related to its revenues and expenditures. That’s where I want to focus the majority of my effort.
Do you see the state actually balancing the budget this year? Next year?Cogdill:Well, I hope we balance it this year. I think it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to get that accomplished and I’m confident that we’ll be able to do it at the end of the day.
Do you see the political will in the building to do that, in terms of Democrats being willing to accept what you believe are necessary cuts to balance the budget?Cogdill:I think so at this point. Obviously there is a lot of ground we’ve got to cover between now and then. I think everybody is pretty resolved that tax increases are not realistic. It is something the governor has said he will not do and we’ve certainly reiterated our point time and time again that we don’t believe tax increases are the way to go.
We’ll have to find some other solutions and I think that’s going to take a lot of creativity on the part of both Democrats and Republicans to do. But I do think we do have an opportunity this year, given the fact that a lot of our options we’ve used historically, whether it’s borrowing or other budget gimmicks as some folks might characterize them, are (not) available to us. That’s probably the biggest opportunity this year is to hopefully get things realigned so that we’re not having this constant problem with our budget related to revenues and expenditures.
In January, the governor rolled out across-the-board cuts everywhere. Is that your preference?Cogdill:I don’t think that that’s the way to go. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think we need to be able to go through our budget line item by line item and hopefully be able to prioritize, to be able to look at what it is we are trying to accomplish with those revenues.
What’s the biggest chunk you see out there – something like here’s $800 million you can save, something large like that?Cogdill: There are a number of those things. I don’t know that there’s anything that comes up to that large a single amount from any one area of the budget, but I do think that you definitely look at how we spend money on education in the state. Given the fact that, when you throw in higher education, it’s 50-60 percent of our spending.
So when you’ve got this type of budget problem, I don’t think you have any option but to look at the education sector of the budget. Given its size and the cumbersome nature of it, as it relates to categorical and other ways that we spend money, there’s got to be some opportunities there to find some savings. Especially, when we look at what we spend on administration, the top end of the budget, versus what actually ends up in the classroom.
Those are the biggest complaints that we hear often from teachers and others, ‘There isn’t enough dollars going into the classroom.’ At the same time, there is usually a lot of criticism that we spend too much money in administration. So if that’s the case, let’s all work together and figure out how we can achieve some savings in administration.
Can you talk a little bit about how you view your job as leader? Your soon-to-be counterpart, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, has been tagged as “nice guy.” How would you describe yourself, how you plan to approach Big 5 meetings and your caucus?Cogdill:I think my reputation is pretty well established in this building. People see me as a straight shooter, an honest person that doesn’t play games. I’m a pragmatist. I look to find practical solutions to the problems that confront us.
I think it’s important that we have very open conduits of dialogue that work among the leadership. That’s why I’m pleased to see Darrell in that position, quite frankly. He and I have worked together well during our time in the Legislature and I would expect that to continue. Mike Villines, we’re old friends (that) go way back. Obviously we represent the same area of the state so that relationship is a very strong one.
The next speaker, we don’t know who that is going to be, obviously, at this point. But I do feel I have a good relationship with the governor, having worked this year closely with him on water and I think he understands me and where I’m coming from, what I believe is important…
Both you and Mike Villlines have described yourselves as pragmatic. Both of you describe yourselves as fairly conservative. Senator Steinberg describes himself as pragmatic and fairly liberal.Cogdill:Yes
How often do you see the pragmatism come together? There’s a pretty big gap between what Senator Steinberg says he wants to see to balance the budget and what you say you want to see. How do you bridge that?Cogdill: Again, I think it’s just through an open dialogue. Because of our relationships we have an opportunity to do that. There are certain places he knows I can’t go. There are certain places I know he can’t go. So the challenge for the two of us is to find that middle ground.
If you to had been (Senate leader) during last summer’s budget standoff, do you see things happening differently? You did not end up voting for the budget.
Cogdill:I think as long as we went there, there was still opportunity to take it a little bit farther than we did. I think it’s important to point out that effort did result in $4 billion in additional adjustments to the budget. If we had not made those, if we had voted out the budget that came to us from the Assembly, right now we’d be looking at a $20 billion deficit.
So, again, I guess in retrospect, and as I felt at the time, we didn’t take it as far as we should have. But…eight members of our caucus had thought we made the most progress we could and decided to put the budget out.
But you weren’t one of those eight.Cogdill: No.
For this summer’s budget, when you do see it passing? It’s prediction time.Cogdill: Your guess is as good as mine. At this point, it could go a number of different ways. We might be very surprised. The severity of the situation is one that, as I mentioned, removes a lot of the options we’ve used in the past. When we get down to it after the May Revise, we’ll have a better handle on exactly where we are from a revenue standpoint…
We could come to a decision earlier than some people think. But I’m not saying that I believe that will necessarily happen. I’m just saying it’s a possibility. I think that it could also go very, very late this year. There are still a number of things that will have to come into play before we’ll know that.
In terms of working with the governor, you said you have a good relationship from (working on) the water bonds. How strongly do you believe him when he says he’s not going to raise taxes?Cogdill: Well, he’s said it so often. He’s said it from day one in his original run for governor. He’s never wavered (on) that with anything I’ve seen, except this proposal he put forward for this surcharge on insurance for fire protection.
What about the health care proposal?Cogdill: Well, yes, but I think he sees that as not so much a tax increase as he sees it as a way to finances something we’re already paying for in a much more expensive way. That’s kind of off the general fund budget. I think you can make that argument, but certainly, as it relates to the general fund of the state of California, I think he’s been pretty adamant about his belief that we should not raise taxes.
What do you see happening with water this year…?Cogdill: It’s obviously a very difficult subject, always has been in the state. An awful lot of effort was expended last year on trying to get to a bipartisan agreement on water. We are still at the table. We continue to plan to work to try to get there. Hopefully we’ll find some way. I think it’s fair to say it’s going to be extremely difficult. It’s that important that we need to continue to hammer on it.
Can you talk about your political priorities and when you are going to start to assume that job and the fundraising tasks? What are your priorities for this year?Cogdill: First and foremost we have to deal with the potential recall that is out there on Sen. Denham. We’ll vigorously defend him and support that effort to see to it that he comes back. We’re very confident that that will be the case at the end of the day.
It’s extremely unfortunate that the president pro tem (Don Perata) has decided to move forward on the recall. I don’t think that’s what the folks that devised the recall law had in mind at the time. It wasn’t to take someone out because they voted their conscience as a sitting member of the Legislature. It was for such things as malfeasance or immorality or any number of other legitimate reasons to provide a mechanism whereby voters could recall their legislator. This whole thing seems to stem from Jeff’s budget vote last year – and history shows that he was right. Why the electorate would want to remove him from office doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…
Is this a big distraction financially?Cogdill: It is a big distraction financially. It is a big distraction for the house, to have to go through that during a time when, really, we need to be working together on some very difficult and real solutions for the state of California. It’s something that I wish wasn’t out there and hoping that at the end of the day our friends on the other side of the aisle see the wisdom in backing away from this. At this point, that doesn’t look like what they’ve got in mind.
What about in the fall elections? Do you have some goals in terms of amount of money you want to raise?Cogdill: That goes without saying. There is a lot of money that has to be raised in order to be competitive. That’s always the case. We’ve got an incumbent (Sen. Abel Maldonado) that we’ve got to do our best to try to bring back. We’ve got several open seats that we will be working diligently to bring (the Republican candidates) into the Senate, so there’s obviously a lot of work ahead of us.
Do you see a possibility that Democrats get a 27-seat majority in the Senate?Cogdill: Ah, well you know, anything is possible, but I think we’ve got a good opportunity, given the candidates we have and the districts that they represent, that we’ll be competitive. At this point, I plan to work as hard as I can to see that we at least maintain our (15) seats, if not pick up another one.
Can you talk a little about geography and what role that’s going to play in terms of prioritization of issues that may not have been on the front burner previously and what those issues are?Cogdill: For us in the Central Valley, we’ve always felt that it’s been difficult to convince our friends in the North and South and the Bay Area, related to our needs and why it’s important to pay attention to those things.
So I think it’s beneficial to have Mike (Villines, Assembly GOP leader) and I there and now Darrell in the north Valley – just to have a little bit louder voice at the table when we start to discuss those things…We’ll have a little bit better opportunity to get our message out.
You’re going to be inheriting a caucus that has been divided for the last few years. Twice, Senator Battin tried to become leader and failed by narrow margins. How do you bring those folks together, on the budget and on other issues, so you don’t lose votes?Cogdill: Number one, there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us in our caucus. A lot of those folks that have had issues over the years, as a result of the failure of Prop. 93, are termed out. So they won’t be here next year. I have worked well with virtually every member of the caucus during my time in the Legislature and again I don’t think any of these battles have been personal in any way.
There’s a very real opportunity now, looking forward, to bring this caucus together and unite us once again and to certainly increase our strength as a result of that. Probably the biggest thing that will work to do that is the fact that a lot of the parties that have been at loggerheads will no longer be members of the caucus. All the folks running to replace them I’ve known well, I’ve worked with them for years, have relationships with them, so I’m confident when they do join our caucus that we’ll be able to find very useful roles for them and they’ll be great team players.