Niello stands by his tax vote

Former Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, says the 30 Republicans who signed on to the recently formed “Taxpayer Caucus” are taking themselves out of the picture by announcing their refusal to negotiate over taxes.

All it means is that Gov. Jerry Brown knows where not to look for a deal as he tries to gather support for his proposal to place the question of extending the current level of sales, income and auto taxes on the ballot, he said.

“They’ve done two things,” Niello told me this morning. “They’ve completely eliminated themselves as a factor. And they’ve split the caucus. The worst thing a minority caucus can do is split their caucus. The only power they can wield is to stay united. If you split, you’re dead.”

Indeed, there are 12 Republicans who did not join the caucus, including the two GOP leaders, Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Visalia.

They’ve kept their options open, and apparently understand that the threat of GOP voter backlash is overstated, Niello suggested.

In this story story, I challenged the notion that Republicans are automatically punished by GOP voters for approving taxes.

Now, some would say Niello shouldn’t be one handing out advice to Republicans. In the story, I note that of the six GOP legislators to vote for tax increases in 2009, Niello was the only to lose in a primary.

But he suggests that even his case doesn’t conform with the narrative that’s out there: that Republican voters punish Republicans who vote for taxes.

Yes, he did lose to Ted Gaines, R-Roseville (who, by the way, is a member of the Taxpayer Caucus) in an open special election primary on Nov. 2. He finished third behind Gaines (32 percent) and a Democrat, Ken Cooley (30 percent) with 25 percent of the vote.

But Niello says that the 60-day campaign — ordered after the sudden death of Sen. Dave Cox — made it impossible to defend his tax vote to voters who mostly didn’t know him.

Hundreds of miles separate these voters in scattered small media markets.

The 1st Senate district is expansive, ranging across 11 counties, from Mono in the Central Valley to Modoc, all the way up to the the Oregon border.

Niello did well in Sacramento County, the largest in the Senate district. But there are more voters in the outlying areas by a 3-to-2 margin (330,000 to 227,000).

“Sixty days is not enough time to explain that, so we frankly didn’t even try,” Niello said.

“I was not discouraged at all,” he said. “It showed in Sacramento County that Republicans and Decline to State voters understood why I cast the vote the way I did.”

Niello argues that Republicans are in a position of great strength to win sought-after reforms if they’d just allow Brown to place tax extensions on the ballot.

He said he’s convinced voters will reject the extensions on the current level of sales, income and auto taxes. So, if Republicans can get pension or regulatory reforms in the process and defeat the tax extensions, it would go down as a two-fer.

“It’s somewhat dismaying to me that some people are telling Republicans they should just sit on their hands and not use the power they have to negotiate reforms with Gov. Brown,” Niello told me. “They could use that power to negotiate significant reforms that are needed.”

Niello says that he hopes to prove wrong those who think his career was ended by his tax vote. Depending on how the Sacramento-region Senate district is redrawn later this year, he may run there in 2012. Or he may run for what will be an open state controller seat, given his background as an accountant.

Either way, he thinks there’s plenty of room to convince Republicans that he took a reasoned approach in voting for taxes — and that negotiation is the lifeblood of good politics.

Steven Harmon