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Valley legislators' influence dwindles in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO -- A special committee this month is making key decisions on solving the state's budget crisis -- without representation from the San Joaquin Valley. And as the Big Four legislative leaders confer on the state's fiscal choices, they, too, lack a valley voice.

Has the region lost whatever clout it once had in Sacramento?

Only a few months ago, two of the valley's representatives played key roles. But that changed in the aftermath of the last budget deal in February, when Republicans Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Mike Villines of Clovis were pushed out of Big Four leadership roles by conservative colleagues upset with their votes for new taxes.

They were replaced by Republicans from the central coast and Inland Empire. The valley took another hit when none of the region's 15 lawmakers was able to secure a spot on the Senate-Assembly Budget Conference Committee. The panel is voting on budget proposals that will be presented to the full Legislature.

The committee is a select group, just 10 of the Legislature's 120 members. Still, including the Big Four -- the party leaders in the two houses -- lawmakers with budget leadership roles come from districts that touch 24 of the state's 58 counties. Almost all major regions are represented, except the valley, which is home to nearly 4 million people from San Joaquin to Kern counties.

Fred Silva, an adviser for California Forward, a bipartisan political reform group, said the committee make-up follows a trend of less emphasis on regions and more on ideology.

Legislative leaders are more apt to give key posts to members who agree with them philosophically, he said.

"There's a danger when the emphasis is more ideological than it is to focus on the vibrancy of California regions, whether it's the valley or it's Southern California," said Silva, a former top legislative budget consultant for Democrats.

Pete Weber, a civic leader in Fresno, said the deep budget cuts on the table could have disproportionate effects on the region.

Thousands of valley residents rely on social service programs that face big cuts, for instance. And counties rely on state money for the Williamson Act land-preservation program, also on the chopping block.

"I am concerned that we don't have a representative at the table," Weber said. "I want to make sure that the unique circumstances of the valley, which are doubly affected by the economy and the drought, are taken into consideration."

Most valley lawmakers downplayed the situation, saying leaders will keep them abreast and take suggestions.

"Our input is valuable to them," said Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Tulare. "It's my obligation to make sure that my conference committee members are hearing from me."

But Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, is concerned about a lack of input. He said he tried to get on the conference committee. But he suggested that leaders kept him off because he has pushed for significant spending cuts in private caucus meetings, while other Democrats want tax increases.

"Maybe I've been outspoken ... about the need to make more cuts," he said. "That's not an approach that sits well with some folks."

Legislative leaders said they focused on experience when assembling the conference committee, naming several members who have served on budget committees in each house.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said there won't be deals favoring one region over another, because lawmakers are looking at across-the-board cuts to help close a $24 billion shortfall. "When you look at the magnitude and the seriousness of what we're dealing with in California, geography anywhere takes a back seat," he said.

Republicans in the minority

To some degree, the valley has a simple numbers problem. Democrats make up a majority of the Legislature and control six of the conference committee spots. Of the San Joaquin Valley's 15 lawmakers, only six are Democrats. And valley Democrats sometimes stray from the liberal positions taken by their colleagues from the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The valley Democrat with the highest rank is Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who was named Senate "majority leader" this year, the upper chamber's second in command.

Still, Florez said he's not directing the day-to-day decisions of the conference committee. Rather, he's working on "larger reforms," he said.

The valley has a greater chance of landing leadership slots on the Republican side because the region is a GOP voting base, along with Orange County and the Inland Empire.

But in the Legislature, power moves between lawmakers in different regions not based on where they're from, but the stances they take. For instance, in the Senate, Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, unseated Cogdill because he took a hard line against new taxes and Cogdill did not.

Villines stepped down voluntarily but felt pressured, because he, too, struck a compromise with Democrats on taxes.

The valley inevitably will rise again -- at least in GOP circles. Possible up-and-comers include the Assembly's Conway and Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto. Both voted against taxes in February.

Last week, new Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo named the two lawmakers as "Republican whips," who are charged with tracking legislation.