With Governor Schwarzenegger having nominated Republican Abel Maldonado for Lieutenant Governor to replace John Garamendi, the Democratic state legislature has three months to confirm or reject him. But so far, opinions have revolved around the politics of such a move. Some (across the political specturm) have an axe to grind with the State Senator, and do not wish to reward bad behavior. Some view it as helping – or hurting – other political careers, and adjust their opinions accordingly. Others judge it from a partisan political lens, and what it could mean for the state’s future. But the only factor that should really matter is – what does the Lieutenant Governor do? And in the only place where the job has any power, how would Maldonado vote on the State Lands Commission – where he could single-handedly cause off-shore oil drilling? As the state deals with a mammoth budget crisis, another question is – do we even need a Lieutenant Governor?

The Progressive Case for Maldonado

As soon as Arnold announced his pick last week on Jay Leno, Maldonado received strong support from an unlikely place – the netroots. Because he would have to give up his State Senate seat, liberal bloggers view Maldonado’s ascent as a rare opportunity for Democrats to get a two-thirds majority – breaking the incessant logjam in Sacramento where right-wing Republicans hold the budget hostage.

“The best thing we can do right now is to remove Abel Maldonado from a position of importance where he can do great damage, the California State Senate, and place him in an irrelevant post, the Lieutenant Governor’s office,” said Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign. “For once, we agree with the Governor – Abel Maldonado should be demoted to Lieutenant Governor.”

Confirming Maldonado would result in a special election for his seat on the Central Coast senate seat, which Obama won by 20 points and Democrats have a shot. If a Democrat wins that race, they would only need to pick up one more Senate seat in 2010 – probably (based on demographics) the Central Valley seat currently represented by Jeff Denham.

Termed-out Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz (a liberal Democrat) plans to run for Maldonado’s Senate seat after he gets confirmed, and bloggers are eager to help him out. But Democratic legislators – who have the final say on whether he gets confirmed – have other ideas about Maldonado. And Senate President Darrell Steinberg has already expressed “grave doubts” on his confirmation.

The Democratic Case Against Maldonado

In a Democratic state legislature that needs a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, Republican Senator Abel Maldonado is an Olympia Snowe character. He is a so-called “moderate” who is willing to cut a deal on the budget, while the rest of his party would rather see the state fall off a cliff than raise any taxes whatsoever. But the deals that Maldonado has extorted in past years for his one vote are enough to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth.

In 2008, he crossed party lines to vote for the budget – but only after Senate President Don Perata agreed to not field a Democrat against him for re-election. In February 2009, he agreed to the mid-year budget compromise – after he got two things: (a) Proposition 1F (a silly “reform” measure that makes him look populist) on the May 2009 ballot, and (b) an open primary measure that progressives are strongly against on the June 2010 ballot.

Maldonado has angered Republicans for cutting deals with Democrats, and Democrats for committing political extortion. With other Republican Senators eyeing the Lieutenant Governor post in 2010, why would Democrats in the legislature stick their neck out for Maldonado? For the legislature, rejecting Maldonado is an easy way to get back at a Governor who has shown little respect for the legislative branch. And in the State Capitol where personal relationships matter, why reward Maldonado's past conduct?

Problems With Each Political Argument

Of course, liberal bloggers have accused Democrats in the State Senate of harboring ulterior motives. One of their own – Dean Florez – is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2010, and would have an easier time if he won’t have to challenge a GOP incumbent. “Instead of seizing a golden opportunity to win one of the two seats we need to get a two-thirds majority,” said Robert Cruickshank, “Steinberg prefers to help coddle a fellow Democratic Senator’s unwillingness to face Maldonado in a general election.”

Sacramento Democrats, meanwhile, are skeptical – based on the current political climate – if their party could win a special election in Maldonado’s seat, because their base is less motivated than the GOP to vote in a special election. The netroots counter that John Laird is a candidate who could fire up the base, and that the special election could be consolidated with the June primary.

But the bigger problem I see with the netroots argument is that – even if John Laird were to replace Maldonado, Democrats would still be one seat shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate. And Republicans would still have veto power in the State Assembly – where Democrats are six votes shy of a super-majority. In the past, Republicans in Sacramento have proven a willingness to hold the budget hostage in one house or another. Losing veto power of the Senate will not stop them from causing mischief in the Assembly.

What it comes down is we need to pass a constitutional amendment to restore a majority vote in Sacramento – so that a blue state like California doesn’t get an Alabama budget.

What Does a Lieutenant Governor Do Anyway?

The theories on each side are fascinating fodder for political junkies, but fail to answer the basic question – what does a Lieutenant Governor do, and how would Maldonado fare? Everyone knows that, like the U.S. Vice President, the Lieutenant Governor must wait for the Governor to die or resign, and presides over the Senate to break a tie vote. Which raises the question – if we’re in a budget crisis, why do we need that position?

The Lieutenant Governor also sits on various boards and commissions. Some, like the UC Board of Regents, are powerful – but Maldonado would be one of 26 members. But on one board, the Lieutenant Governor is key. The State Lands Commission makes critical land use decisions in California, and only has three members: (a) the Governor’s Finance Director, (b) the Controller and (b) the Lieutenant Governor. With a Republican Governor and Democratic Controller, Maldonado could hold the balance of power.

On his perch at the State Lands Commission, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi led the charge to stop offshore oil drilling – prevailing on crucial 2-1 votes. Now that he could step into Garamendi’s shoes, some Republicans are hoping Maldonado would turn the tide.

As a State Senator, Maldonado opposed offshore oil drilling. But so did the Governor, until he was for it – under the phony pretense that it would raise revenue. Only the Fresno Bee has asked Maldonado, and he gave a non-committal reponse: “I always look at things on a case by case basis. And I have not looked at the state lands analysis.

Questions like this are what really matter about whether Maldonado should be confirmed. Not hypothetical political considerations – for or against – but cold, policy questions. If he fails to state a clear position on how he would serve on the State Lands Commission, the argument that the state should save money by leaving the post vacant makes sense.