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The Speaker Surrenders

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It may not matter whether Democrats manage to win two thirds of the legislature after all.

    That's one conclusion that could be drawn from Assembly Speaker John Perez's decision not to punish the staff of Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat who refused to vote for the Democratic budget and has made a nuisance of himself ever since.

    Perez had indicated that Portantino's staff would be furloughed this month because the assemblyman was over budget. Portantino had fought back, arguing he and his people were being punished for their vote -- and launching a campaign for more openness in how the legislature spends its money.

    But this week, Perez surrendered and decided not to furlough Portantino's staff at all.

    His office cited the departures of staff members and leaves of absence from others. But in the process, the speaker may have demonstrated his own weakness -- and may have weakened his party in the future.

    How's that? Portantino, by winning a battle with the speaker, showed that lawmakers who would step out of line on a key vote -- like on the budget -- can fight back successfully against efforts to punish them. This episode guarantees more mutinies in the future.

    And in the event that Democrats grab two-thirds of the legislature after the 2012 elections (an unlikely event, but one Democrats see as within reach), the Perez surrender may diminish the power the party would have. Individual Democratic legislators, instead of falling in line, would be likely to make big, costly demands in return for their vote to raise revenues by a two-thirds vote -- secure in the knowledge that leadership can't punish them effectively.

    Two-thirds control could quickly become more curse than blessing.

    All this is another reason why Democrats should change their current strategy -- which is to oppose major governance reform in the apparent hope that they'll get two thirds control of the legislature and be able to do what they want by early 2013.

    This is the wrong strategy for a number of reasons. Two thirds will be hard to achieve. And even if achievable, it won't be a panacea.

    It might be the start of more damaging internal battles like the Perez-Portantino episode.

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