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Capitol Gains

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By Jennifer Warren, Photos by Michael Sugrue

Published Jul 1, 2009 11:00 AM


Despite the crisis, the Capitol's infamous partisanship was hardly in retreat. Indeed, in the sharply polarized Legislature, with Republicans dead set against new taxes and Democrats determined to prevent extensive cuts, reaching a compromise appeared an almost impossible task.

But step by deliberate step, Steinberg nudged his colleagues toward a deal. He cajoled, he wheedled, he lectured. Then he locked down the Senate — even confiscating car keys after learning that a few senators were defying his edict and slipping out. And in the end, he resorted to some big-time horse-trading to get the two-thirds voting majority he needed to end the three-month budget impasse.

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Dean Florez.

"We had huge, systemic conflict, and what we needed was a collaborative leader who could sublimate his own policy wants for the greater good," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento. "We needed conflict resolution, and Darrell was exactly the right person at the right time."

As proud as they are of the budget compromise, which included more than $12 billion in tax hikes and billions in cuts to education and programs for the poor, Steinberg and Florez know their work on California's fiscal woes is nowhere near done. But the agreement did give the senators some breathing room to focus, at least temporarily, on other priorities. One top goal they share is an expanded emphasis on government oversight, stemming from a mutual belief that good governance is not just about passing bills.

As Florez puts it: "My philosophy is that in tough times, we need to stretch a dollar. We need more efficiency. We need to hold hearings and ask tough questions and find out what the executive branch is doing to implement laws we've already passed."

Toward that end, Steinberg created a Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, turning a team of investigators loose on the vast state government bureaucracy. Their first target: California's In-Home Support Services program, which helps low-income and elderly people avoid costly nursing homes by delivering care in their own homes. Limited oversight has allowed fraud to infect the fast-growing program, which is expected to serve 440,000 people at a cost of $5.4 billion in federal, state and county funding this year, the Senate inquiry found.

In terms of policy priorities, Steinberg and Florez have a meaty list, topped by the urgent drive to produce a comprehensive agreement on California's water crisis. As the state experiences its third dry year in a row, the water wars of decades past remain largely unresolved. Steinberg has convened a working group and wants a bill that solves the state's nagging water-delivery needs while stabilizing the crashing ecosystem of California's biggest wetland — the sprawling Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Expanding health-care coverage to the uninsured is also high on Steinberg's agenda. Despite the Legislature's decades-long struggle to make progress on the issue, Steinberg's optimism about reform is strong this year because the state now has a powerful ally — the federal government. "Our past attempts were ambitious and very well-intended, but we were attempting it with one hand tied behind our back because we had no partner," Steinberg said. "Now we do."

Universal coverage may be the ultimate prize, but Steinberg wants to start by expanding the health-care umbrella to cover California's 700,000 uninsured children. "You build a foundation, create confidence, and move forward from there to accomplish something even bigger," said Steinberg, reciting a formula that sums up his approach to leadership across the board.

Steinberg's other top goals include establishing the world's most aggressive renewable energy standards, revamping public schools so they reduce dropout rates and better prepare students for the new economy, and reversing the erosion of state funding for California's public university system.

"We want the University of California to continue to be the great equalizer, the great beacon, the great research institution," says Steinberg, whose studies began at UC Berkeley and continued with a B.A. at UCLA and a J.D. from UC Davis. "But we're not going to be able to say that if we don't invest in it and stop this feast-or-famine approach to financing."

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