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Defining Time for Governor

The rush of bills sent to Schwarzenegger's desk may be a litmus test for his political philosophy.

August 27, 2004|Robert Salladay and Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — In a series of rapid-fire votes, Democrats who control the Legislature are openly challenging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and handing him tricky decisions that could define the political philosophy of his administration.

When the Legislature ends its 2004 session -- as soon as today -- Schwarzenegger could face legislation that pits senior citizens against pharmaceutical companies, unions against employers who send jobs overseas, car buyers against car dealers, and minimum-wage earners against businesses.

Schwarzenegger's decisions over the next month -- as he signs or vetoes hundreds of bills -- will give California a clearer definition of the governor's political philosophy and his connections to special interests that helped finance his election and ballot campaigns. Is he a business-friendly Republican? A moderate? A Republican in name only?

"As the year has gone on, we have found it's hard to get a read from the governor on certain issues," said Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), chosen Tuesday as the new Senate leader. "So, absent a clear direction, I think people are saying, 'Let's just put it on his desk and let him decide.' "

While challenging Schwarzenegger with legislation they support, Democrats have rejected or watered down some of his own proposals -- such as balking at a gambling compact he signed with an Indian tribe that wants to build a large-scale casino in the Bay Area.

Until now, California lawmakers have been wary of defying the new Republican governor because voters responded so forcefully to his October recall campaign, and because their own reputations have been battered in polls. That view has changed with a handful of high-profile bills that the governor must now either veto or sign.

"The Legislature is feeling out the governor," said Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga). "Unlike previous governors, he doesn't have a long political history. So the Legislature is passing a number of bills to test and see what the governor will sign and what he will veto."

Margita Thompson, the governor's spokeswoman, said Schwarzenegger and his legislative aides have been working to find compromises with lawmakers this week and "minimize political gamesmanship." She said the governor will look at each bill on its merits. "The prism under which legislation is going to be looked at is going to be on job-creating and the economy," Thompson said. "One of the reasons he was elected in October was to get the state's fiscal house in order."

The Assembly on Thursday rejected a Schwarzenegger plan to vastly increase solar power in California. The governor last week had proposed a plan to equip 1 million homes to make use of solar power, but lawmakers rejected the idea in part because it would have required a utility rate increase. They instead went ahead with their own less-ambitious plan to boost an incentive program for solar power using available money.

In another rejection of Schwarzenegger, the Senate approved the year's most controversial energy bill, which would allow investor-owned utilities such as Southern California Edison Co. to recoup all costs of building new power plants. The governor opposes the measure, written by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), saying it does not allow customers to shop for power.

Many of the consumer-oriented measures moving this week have been strongly opposed by business interests, which have a voice in Schwarzenegger's administration. His chief legislative liaison, Richard Costigan, and one of his top advisors, Cassandra Pye, both have worked for the California Chamber of Commerce.

The Legislature sent Schwarzenegger bills Thursday that would ease the way for prescription drugs to be purchased from Canada through Internet links and allow bulk drug purchases for state programs.

The governor has called those bills illegal because they would defy federal law on drug importation. But Democrats have been intent on making Schwarzenegger take a public stand against the bills -- all being closely watched by advocates for the elderly.

Drug makers, including biotech firms such as Genentech, have donated $186,000 to the governor since his election, including $100,000 from Pfizer Inc. in February to Schwarzenegger's California Recovery Team campaign committee. Pharmaceutical companies donated $103,000 to him during last year's recall campaign. Drug firms also are helping finance his trip next week to the Republican National Convention in New York City, which is expected to cost as much as $350,000 for the governor and staff.

Democrats also are sending Schwarzenegger legislation designed to curb the practice of taking California jobs overseas. One bill would prohibit healthcare companies from having overseas workers process medical information without patient consent. Another would prohibit the state from contracting for services such as hotlines or computer programming outside the country.

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