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Santa Maria state senator becomes legislative deal maker

Republican California state senator and successful Santa Maria farmer Abel Maldonado made a whistle-stop at World Ag Expo before heading to Sacramento to wade into California’s $42 billion budget fiasco with his fellow legislators.

He piloted himself to the Tulare, Calif., farm show in a twin-engine aircraft for a brief media day update on issues impacting agriculture.

Developing new water for a rapidly growing California is the No. 1 issue in the state — urban and agriculture, he told the media gathered for a pre-show visit.

He has supported every water bond issue that has come up during his time in office, but vowed to cast a no-vote on the next one unless it contains significant water storage projects.

“None of this bogus water,” Maldonado said, referring to efforts to meet water needs with conservation programs. “We support conservation, but at the end of the day California and its people and agriculture use a lot of water and we need more for the future.

Maldonado was raised on a Santa Maria farm. He still farms. “We have come a long way from where we were 20 years ago. We now have drip systems and automated systems. We (agriculture) are doing our part to conserve water. Now it is time to develop some real water,” he says.

Tough talk from a politician to a friendly audience; however, he proved in Sacramento later in the month that he is more action than talk.

Little did he know in Tulare that he would be the senator who would be a logjam breaker in resolving the $42 billion fiscal crisis that had the state on the brink of virtual bankruptcy. His trip to Sacramento resulted in days of deliberation to reach a compromise on the state budget. It even resulted in a legislative lockdown until a budget was finalized.

It was Maldonado who crossed over to vote for a budget bailout plan, but not before he won significant concessions and a lunch with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The biggest was a deal to drop the 12-cents per gallon gasoline tax hike in return for Maldonado’s vote to pass the budget.

The others were a ballot measure to hold open primary elections, and prevent legislators from getting pay raises when the state is facing a budget deficit.

Maldonado was slapped on the wrist by his Republican party, but the governor and many others hailed him a hero in breaking the partisan deadlock.

He drove a hard bargain and may have elevated himself to a position of added power to resolve other issues, like water. He became a proven deal maker.

“The governor started talking about a water bond a year ago and it rained the next week. Everyone forgot about it,” he said.

Heavy rain does not wash away the fact California is in a water crisis that Maldonado says must be resolved for all Californians. The water crisis is far more critical than any fiscal fiasco.

No. 1 on his list of solutions to the water problem is expanding existing dams like Shasta in Northern California; raising Millerton or building Temperance Flat reservoir on the San Joaquin River watershed above Millerton.

“I do not care if it is underground, above ground or in the sky; we need more water storage in this state,” he said.

The Santa Maria farmer used to be chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, but was ousted in a political move and replaced by Dean Florez, a Democratic state senator from Kern County.

Florez changed the committee name from Agriculture to Food and Ag.

He admitted he was “disappointed” he was not consulted before the move by the Senate pro tem. “I did not like the way it happened. I wish the pro tem had called and at least asked what I thought about the change.”

Florez not only changed the committee name, he added two members, one from Berkeley and another from Santa Monica, neither agricultural areas. Maldonado was puzzled by that move.

The state senator from Shafter, Calif., also changed direction of the committee, opting to make it hearing-driven. Maldonado, who remains vice chairman, said a series of hearings are scheduled across the state, many focusing on controversial issues.

With this new direction, Maldonado sarcastically said the new chairman “either wants himself to be well-known or the committee well-known.” It has been obvious to most political observers that the headlines Florez has been making over the past year are to raise his personal profile to run for higher office.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state and it needs to be protected and worked with,” Maldonado says.

He also said vocational agriculture programs in high schools, the Williamson Act to protect farmland from high taxes and the University of California Cooperative Extension are other areas vital to the continued success of California agriculture that he believes should be protected from draconian budgets cuts in the future.

Maldonado’s father was a Bracero and immigration reform is a major issue for him. He said President Barak Obama promised immigration reform in his first year in office, but the state senator said that is doubtful with the current national fiscal crisis.

As a farmer, he said the need is to bring back a temporary worker program not just for agriculture, but for the service industry as well.

“I do not want amnesty. We need temporary workers like my dad who came here to work. He did not come for a free ride. He came to work hard,” he said.

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