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High Hopes on Opening Day

November 17, 2003

The leap from campaign promise to reality can be a long one. As Arnold Schwarzenegger takes office as California's 38th governor today, he has more ground than most to cover and less time to do it. Since he's starting the job with no government experience, he'll have to rely on other skills, including his considerable personal wattage. Being a quick study would also help.

Schwarzenegger raised expectations during his whirlwind recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis. The expectations, in the voters' minds, were less about the precious few specifics he offered -- rescinding the car tax increase, for example -- and more about getting a governor who was willing and able to lead. He said he wanted to bust up business as usual. Now he has his chance.

More about the new governor's priorities will be gleaned from his inaugural speech today. His most immediate problems are with state finances.

Schwarzenegger has hinted at sponsoring a $20-billion bond issue to go before voters in the March primary election, refinancing the existing debt and closing next year's budget gap. That 30-year bond measure would pass off this generation's debt well into the next, dampening the state's ability to issue bonds for schools, roads and other crumbling infrastructure. If the new governor insists on heaping unprecedented debt onto future generations to avoid painful temporary taxes now, he'll have to explain why that's fair to the children for whom he advocates.

Schwarzenegger won't have much honeymoon time with problems this big. He needs to lead with his strength -- his star persona and his easy personal style. He'll have no trouble getting face time with leaders of both parties, but he'll have to listen to them as well to learn how the legislative process works -- if only to figure out how to work it for himself.

With renewed public interest in what's going on in Sacramento, voters will not stand for the constant ideological warfare that has scarred the Legislature in recent years. If Schwarzenegger is making honest efforts to solve the state's considerable problems, lawmakers cannot afford to set up legislative booby traps and smirk when the governor stumbles. He has some learning to do, but so does the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger disappointed during the campaign, in part because he wouldn't tell voters specifically how he would fix state government. Now he's got the job. He's made a strong effort to bring conservatives and liberals together in his administration. All eyes are on him, anticipating.

For the first time in years, it's an exciting time in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger must push hard for a reform agenda and rack up significant successes quickly. As in the movie business, the early box office is the key.

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To read a series of Times editorials building an agenda for state reform, "Reinventing California," go to www.latimes.com/reinvent.

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