The Don giveth and the Don taketh away

Our MediaNews bureau in Sacramento offered this notable tidbit over the weekend:

It looks like Sen. Joe Simitian‘s trip to the doghouse will be short.

Last week, the Palo Alto Democrat was stripped of his prestigious chairmanship of the Senate environment committee. The discipline was meted out by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, after Simitian challenged fellow Democrats in a debate over looming budget cuts to public schools.

But barely a week passed before the two smoothed things over — mostly, but not entirely. As of Friday afternoon, Perata’s office wasn’t commenting, but Simitian confirmed that the Senate leader had agreed to reinstate Simitian as committee chairman. The official decision is expected to be made public sometime this week.

Still, Simitian isn’t entirely off the hook. Perata, he said, has removed him from the Senate budget committee – a slap on the wrist compared with losing the chairmanship, but punishment still.

“It was my choice to speak my mind. Choices have consequences. I understand that,” Simitian said. He said he will now serve on six committees instead of seven.

At issue was how much education funding to cut in the current fiscal year. Under Proposition 98 of the state constitution, schools are guaranteed minimum funding each year based on a complicated formula. Cuts made this year lower the base and therefore the guaranteed minimum for next year.

Perata and fellow Democrats had agreed to a current-year cut of $506 million. Simitian argued that lawmakers should try to lower the benchmark for next year’s guaranteed funding by an additional $400 million – or at least leave flexibility to do so in the coming months. But some Democrats characterized his idea as an unacceptable cut to schools.

Simitian said his proposal was designed to spare school districts even more pain next year and avoid having to suspend Proposition 98. He argued his case publicly with another Democratic senator for a half-hour, and after the hearing Perata stripped Simitian of his chairmanship.

But given Simitian’s solid reputation within the Democratic caucus, some observers expected the punishment to be temporary.

I just got off the phone with Senator Simitian myself, and he said it’s not as if he was thrilled about the prospect of cutting money for schools: “I was trying to avoid a Proposition 98 suspension, it’s as simple as that.”

Is he comfortable with the idea that dissent can mean demotion in this Senate Democratic Caucus? “I think I’ll leave that to others to assess.”

And does he feel he has patched things up with Perata sufficiently? “Oh, yes… We’ve always had a very good working relationship, as a matter of fact.”

‘Cept for when Don’s cracking the whip, of course.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.