10:46 PM PDT on Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – As the 2003-04 legislative session drew to a close, then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez marveled at colleague Bob Dutton’s fast track to the state Senate after two nondescript years in the Assembly.

Dutton was still low in the state’s political hierarchy a few years later when Attorney General Jerry Brown asked, “Who the (heck) is Bob Dutton and why is he holding up the budget?”

Now Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, is days away from taking charge of Senate Republicans, potentially amid a budget impasse that could set a record for lateness.

The Sept. 1 handover from Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth will mark a legislative high point for Dutton, a plainspoken Nebraska native who rose through the ranks of real estate and politics in San Bernardino County, yet is untouched by an ongoing corruption scandal there involving both.

Dutton’s arrival as GOP leader is unlikely to change the tenor of any budget standoff. Like Hollingsworth, Dutton rules out any tax increases, regardless of what Democrats offer at the negotiating table.

“We’re headed into a double-dip recession and you’re not going to tax your way out of it,” Dutton said. “Right now you’ve just got to reduce spending, period.”

Dutton knows budgets, having spent the past five years as the top Republican on the Senate budget panel. The state’s fiscal outlook will continue to be grim next year. He’ll also be involved on other issues confronting the state, such as prison crowding.

And away from the Capitol, Dutton will oversee efforts by Senate Republicans, who are heavily outnumbered by Democrats, to avoid losing any seats in this fall’s elections.

Dutton said he is ready for the leader’s job.

“I just feel like I have the right experience, background and skills to help rebuild California,” Dutton said. “I think I can help fix the state.”

The former smoker keeps boxes of cinnamon gum in his Capitol office to fight the urge during stressful times. Cornhusker football, hunting with his dogs, and fishing help him relax, although budget delays have regularly prevented annual summer fishing trips with his father, Ted, a prominent Inland resident.

Former Senate GOP Leader Dick Ackerman said he valued Bob Dutton’s counsel on the budget and other issues, such as the negotiations that led to a $37 billion public-works bond package in 2006.

“He’s a very solid guy. He knows how to get deals done,” Ackerman said.

Dutton has a history of working with Democrats on past budgets and the 2006 bonds. But he has become vocally frustrated with what he recently described as the “total disregard” by Democrats and, sometimes, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for creating a healthy business climate.

State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, Dutton’s Democratic counterpart on the Senate budget panel, has spent hours in public and private talks with him.

“He’s a reasonable partner. He’s trying to be practical and look at things in a way that’s not ideological,” said Ducheny, who represents part of Riverside County, adding, “He seems to be real discouraged this year.”

Real estate

Dutton got his start in politics after moving to Southern California in 1969 and running for president at Los Angeles Valley College. He served in the California Air National Guard, where he was a cook.

Dutton moved to Rancho Cucamonga in the 1970s and served on the Rancho Cucamonga City Council before being elected to the Inland area’s 63rd Assembly District in 2002.

In 2004, Dutton was the Senate successor to Jim Brulte. He had no primary opposition in the Republican-leaning district and easily defeated token Democrats in 2004 and 2008.

As Dutton prepares to lead the 15-member Senate GOP, California will soon enter its ninth week without a budget since the start of the fiscal year.

Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, recently said negotiations would need to begin anew after Dutton became leader. Dutton downplayed the prospect of that.

“We should be sitting at a conference table right now, talking this stuff out and nobody leaves the room until it’s done,” Dutton said. “There doesn’t seem to be an urgency on the part of Democrats.”

Democratic deals

Dutton also has been on friendlier terms with Democrats.

In 2006, he was one of just two Senate Republicans who voted for a $2.8 billion affordable housing bond sought by Democrats.

Early in 2007, he partnered with state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the current Senate leader, on legislation to create savings accounts for every child born in the state.

But Dutton quickly backed away from the bill after a storm of criticism from fellow Republicans who said the measure would encourage illegal immigration. He still defends the effort.

“People who were complaining about it didn’t have any clue about what was proposed for amendments or anything else,” he said.

The California Air Resources Board has been a particular target of Dutton’s ire in recent years. He criticizes the agency’s implementation of AB 32, the greenhouse gas law passed in 2006 and a centerpiece of Schwarzenegger’s legacy.

Dutton has called the agency dishonest and secretive and carried several bills to force changes.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, an air board member, said he has enjoyed working with Dutton over the years. But he said the senator is wrong about the air board.

“We’re doing what the Legislature told us to do,” Loveridge said.

It’s unknown if Dutton would try to make AB 32 changes part of budget negotiations. The November ballot includes an initiative to suspend the law until unemployment falls.

Three years ago, Dutton rallied GOP colleagues to hold out until Democrats agreed to restrict global-warming lawsuits by Brown and others. The final agreement reflected some of his demands.


Another important job for legislative leaders is to raise money for caucus candidates.

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