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THE INAUGURATION | PREPARATIONS

Early Victories Planned by 'Action' Governor

Hours after a low-key inauguration, Schwarzenegger hopes to gain momentum by repealing the car tax increase.

November 17, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In a whirlwind visit to the Capitol after his election victory, Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced to a single word what his new administration would be about: "action."

He repeated it four times for emphasis, promising a government rippling with energy after five years of a Davis administration that disdained risk and measured progress in incremental steps.

"Action, action, action, action."

Aides to the new governor have arranged his first few weeks in office to ensure two things: some attainable victories that will show momentum, and a pace that demonstrates he is bounding out of the gate, revitalizing a state government that many voters see as gridlocked.

"Look at the swearing-in," said state Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), an influential advisor to Schwarzenegger. "There will be no inaugural balls. No galas. Just roll up your sleeves and get to work."

"We still have a massive budget deficit to tackle. Worker compensation costs are still too high, and job growth is still anemic. So we have a lot of work to do. And it may sound cliche-ish, but action is what California needs."

Within Schwarzenegger's circle, the hope is that by "front-loading" his agenda with winnable battles, the new governor will be better positioned to take on the more stubborn fiscal problems that bedeviled Davis. It is an old idea, succinctly summarized by one Schwarzenegger aide as: "Success begets success."

Schwarzenegger is planning to repeal the $4-billion car tax increase within hours of taking office -- something he can do by direct executive action. He is to call a special legislative session beginning Tuesday, demonstrating that he is wasting no time before getting down to work.

One of the issues he wants lawmakers to take up this week is repealing a new law that enables illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. The measure, SB 60, was signed in the thick of the recall campaign, and Davis' critics charge that he approved it to bolster support among Latino voters. Democratic support for the law appears to be crumbling, giving Schwarzenegger every hope of fulfilling a campaign promise within days of taking office.

Looking ahead, overcoming the state's budget difficulties will prove a tougher test of Schwarzenegger's political skills -- as he is already discovering.

It is easy enough to abolish the $4-billion car tax increase. Not so easy is coming up with an equal amount, as Schwarzenegger pledged, so that cities and counties can pay for the police, fire and emergency services that the car tax supports.

Having said he would avoid new taxes while preserving education spending, Schwarzenegger has few attractive options for wiping out the deficit. That became apparent last week, when Schwarzenegger aides locked in hours of meetings reached no consensus on how best to narrow the shortfall. Ultimately, they presented the governor-elect with a package of cuts that would eat into higher education and health programs.

"Clearly, he confronts the same fiscal nightmare that Davis confronted," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "If part of the package is cutting health and human services because that's one of the areas where [he has] wiggle room, then he has to live with the consequences of that -- and that assumes the Legislature will go along with him."

The Legislature: Davis possessed the natural advantage that flowed from his party's control of both the Assembly and the Senate. Yet the Legislature became an obstacle all the same -- dominated, as it is, by lawmakers from safe districts who represent polar ends of the political spectrum.

Schwarzenegger's Republican Party is in the minority, making legislative success an even trickier proposition. Yet his supporters note that in Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger has something of an ambassador to the other party.

"He knows that he has to work with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature," said U.S. Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who led Schwarzenegger's transition team. "It's not as if he hasn't worked with Democrats. One of his great lines is, he's asked 30 times a day why he's a Republican -- and that's simply by his wife."

In the early going, at least, Schwarzenegger will be confronting the Legislature from strength. Many analysts see the recall as a broader referendum on state government. Schwarzenegger's advisors and other strategists believe he can make a compelling argument that his victory reflects widespread disillusionment with state lawmakers and that his ideas -- not theirs -- should prevail.

"There's no question in my mind that if the Legislature was on the ballot, they would have been recalled, as well," said Steven Merksamer, who was chief of staff to former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. "Public disgust with the Legislature is at an all-time high."

Kevin McCarthy, the Assembly's incoming Republican leader, said: "It's the same Legislature. A little shock therapy is very helpful."

Schwarzenegger can boast of something else in his arsenal that Davis lacked: charisma. He is a celebrity on a global scale. If he is thwarted by lawmakers, he can take his platform directly to voters.

One of Schwarzenegger's main political strategists, Washington, D.C.-based Mike Murphy, plans to set up branch offices in Sacramento and Los Angeles, with an eye toward handling any initiatives and referendums promoted by the new governor.

"At the end of the day, he has a great ace in the hole: his celebrity," Merksamer said.

Referendums, though, take time and money. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger, who so ably won over movie audiences, bodybuilding judges and the California electorate, now needs to focus his charms on the group with the power to advance or stymie his agenda. It won't be easy.

Told of McCarthy's comment that the new governor would be administering a dose of shock therapy to the Legislature, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said: "More like the opposite."

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