By Susan Ferriss The Sacramento Bee
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

Political animals are rolling dice all over California.

The state Senate Rules Committee holds a first hearing today to decide whether the Democratic-majority Legislature will let a Republican take over as lieutenant governor.

“All I’ve wanted is a fair hearing,” said Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, who will appear before the committee.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who chairs the committee, has promised fairness but offered “no guarantees,” Maldonado said.

Both political parties have a lot riding in the long and short term on how Maldonado’s future shakes out.

Some Democrats are lobbying enthusiastically for Maldonado to be confirmed because it will remove him from a seat they covet.

If Maldonado were gone, they say, a Democrat would have a shot at replacing him.

Maldonado’s Senate District 15, which runs from Santa Maria to the San Jose suburbs, tips Democratic, with 40.9 percent registered as Democrats and 34.8 percent registered as Republicans as of last May, according to the secretary of state’s office. Another 19.6 percent are “decline-to-state.”

A Democratic win in Maldonado’s coastal district would nudge the party to one seat shy of two-thirds control over the state Senate. A two-thirds vote is needed to pass a budget or a tax proposal.

“The lieutenant governor’s office is a low priority compared to the two-thirds majority,” said Robert Cruickshank, Monterey County Democratic Party vice chairman.

Cruickshank said he’s confident Democrats would put a lot of energy into winning Maldonado’s seat. He’s also confident, he said, that a Democrat could beat any Republican running later for the lieutenant governor’s office.

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, a former state Senate leader, isn’t sure at all.

“People I’ve talked to say it’s questionable we would win in a special election (to replace Maldonado),” Burton said.

“It ain’t my call,” Burton said. He added that he doesn’t think Democrats should vote to confirm putting a Republican in a statewide office.

Confirming Maldonado “is putting a Latino on the Republican ticket statewide that could help the Republicans” in later elections, Burton said. He said he doubted Democratic overtures toward Maldonado would result in GOP votes for Democratic proposals in the Legislature.

In November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on “The Jay Leno Show” that he wanted Maldonado as second-in-command after Democrat John Garamendi was elected to Congress.

Schwarzenegger praised Maldonado as a moderate who is “into bipartisanship and post-partisanship.”

If both houses of the Legislature sit on Maldonado’s confirmation and do nothing through Feb. 21, he automatically takes over as lieutenant governor.

Legislators could also reject Maldonado. But if they confirm him by Feb. 16, a special election could be held in June to fill his Senate seat.

Steinberg has some short-term interest in making Maldonado happy.

To help fill the budget gap, Steinberg favors raising an estimated $1.9 billion in revenue by requiring 3 percent to be withheld on payments to independent contractors.

The governor and GOP lawmakers blocked the proposal last year. Tuesday, speaking to reporters, Maldonado said, “It’s something we need to be looking at.”

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