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The $1 billion in local highway money the state didn’t get in last month’s budget agreement could be a target again as the Legislature comes back from its summer recess this week, Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, suggested last week.

Steinberg, joined by local Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, was at a neighborhood health center in San Francisco’s Mission District, talking about his suit to recover nearly $500 million Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blue-penciled from state health and welfare programs before he signed the budget revisions.

“We could go back to (the highway money),” he told the crowd of doctors, nurses, patients and various care providers. “That’s one way to do this.”

Putting that highway money back into play also would give Steinberg and Senate Democrats a chance to stick it to their colleagues in the Assembly, who tabled the plan to borrow the highway money after Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders agreed to it as part of the overall budget deal last month.

More to the point, they dumped the $1 billion in highway funds out of the budget deal after Steinberg had pushed the bill though a reluctant Senate over the frenzied lobbying and loud complaints of mayors, council members and county supervisors from across the state.

Not only did the Assembly’s decision force the senators to take the heat for a tough vote that ultimately came to nothing, it also opened the way for Schwarzenegger to recover some of that lost money by chopping even deeper into health and welfare programs that Steinberg and other Democrats had fought desperately to save.

Going back to the original budget deal also makes sense because the Senate already has agreed to borrow the highway money, Steinberg said. It would take a simple majority to approve it in the Assembly, which means the Democrats wouldn’t need any Republican votes.

If those highway funds could restore the money taken from AIDS prevention and treatment programs, services for battered women and children’s health care, what Democrat wouldn’t make that choice, Steinberg added, casually turning up the heat on the Assembly.

While Schwarzenegger isn’t saying yes to any new effort to go after those highway funds, he isn’t saying no, either.

“The budget is over, the budget is done,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor. “But if the economy worsens, we will have to go back to do more cuts and look at other measures.”

Translated from politicalese, that means that while Schwarzenegger won’t guarantee to restore any of the current cuts, “other measures” that include another $1 billion in revenues could go a long way toward avoiding additional program trims if – or more likely, when – the Legislature has to go back into this year’s budget to deal with more anticipated deficits.

Steinberg and the Democrats already are gearing up to battle any new call for more budget cuts. His suit arguing that Schwarzenegger’s vetoes were illegal could go before a judge by the middle of September and he was talking tough to the crowd of supporters in San Francisco,

“At some point – and this point is right now – enough is enough,” he argued. “People who need help have given up enough for the state budget.

“We’re tired of playing defense,” Steinberg added. “It’s time to go on offense.”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics. You can read him at the Fox & Hounds Daily Web site