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The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Legislature

June 20, 2004|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the school of policy, planning and development at USC and a political analyst for KNBC.

Early in his abbreviated tenure as California's governor, Gray Davis haughtily -- and stupidly -- pronounced that the Legislature's "job" was to "implement my vision." His relations with Sacramento lawmakers never recovered.

At his swearing-in, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told Californians he was "beholden to no one except you.... I pledge my governorship to your interests, not to special interests." And in this year's State of the State address, he added, "Everyone must play [a] part" in solving the state's budget crisis. "We Californians need to work together at all levels of government."

Has Schwarzenegger learned from Davis' mistakes?

Some argue that, when it suits his purposes, Schwarzenegger has adopted Davis' "my vision" posture -- with a twist.

Compare the governor's rhetoric with his recent actions. When he talks of "bipartisanship," he usually means a Republican governor cutting deals with the Democratic leadership. That's the way the game is played when the opposition party controls the Legislature.

However, more often than not, it appears his message to the Legislature -- and the general public -- is that their job is to stay out of his way so he can implement his vision.

California governors used to submit their budgets to the Legislature, where the plans would be examined, debated and voted on, first in relevant committees and then on the floor of each chamber. Only then did a Senate-Assembly conference committee meet to craft a version that could pass both houses by a two-thirds vote and gain the governor's signature.

Sometimes that took a long, long time and made a lot of people angry. To speed matters up, the budget process was fast-tracked in the early 1990s by the "Big Five" -- the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Assembly and state Senate, who negotiated directly with the governor.

Now, it's down to the "Big Two."

Under Davis, the two were Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), then Senate GOP leader; and John Burton (D-San Francisco), president pro tem of the Senate. Davis was, by and large, a bystander.

Today the "Big Two" are Schwarzenegger and Burton -- and Burton will be leaving this year because he's termed out.

Schwarzenegger has a lot of political capital riding on an on-time budget, so the self-styled "people's governor" has taken to making backroom deals with major interest groups and Democratic constituencies, hoping to short-circuit legislative opposition to his spending plan.

It's a part of his "pie" strategy: Take the budget slice I'm offering now, or go to the back of the line and take whatever crumbs are left in the end.

Even then, recalcitrant interests could face the governor's ultimate threat -- war by ballot initiative. In the wake of his March victories, Schwarzenegger is raking in campaign contributions -- at a rate that would make the fund-raising obsessed Davis envious -- that he can use to support or oppose any proposition he chooses.

The passage of workers' compensation reform marked the new governor's initial success in using the initiative threat to prod lawmakers. The legislation to harness the high costs of insurance for workers injured on the job passed with little public scrutiny or legislative review. Schwarzenegger hailed the fast-tracked compromise as a tribute to Sacramento's new "bipartisanship." Republican lawmakers complained of being frozen out of negotiations completely.

Recalling Schwarzenegger's campaign promise to "throw open the doors and windows of government" to Californians, legislators of both parties deplored the closed process. The governor ceded the point, saying, "I always did campaign saying let the sun shine in. The only thing is ... that sometimes you are on such deadlines. We had to make decisions very quickly. That's why there were no hearings."


That dynamic played out again with respect to two initiatives on the November ballot that would expand casino gambling. One measure, backed by several Indian tribes, would allow unlimited Nevada-style gambling at Indian casinos for the next 99 years in exchange for their paying the state's 8.8% corporate tax. The other would require Indian casinos to pay 25% of their gambling profits to state and local governments, and if one tribe refused, card rooms and racetracks would divide 30,000 slots among themselves and pay 33% of their profits to the governments.

Schwarzenegger, adamant that the tribes pay their "fair share" into the state's coffers, announced his opposition to the tribal-backed initiative and used the other initiative in behind-the-scenes talks as a club to pressure the tribes into renegotiating their gambling compacts with the state. The governor's negotiators reportedly assured tribes that for the right deal with enough big tribes, Schwarzenegger would oppose the initiative backed by card rooms and racetracks. Last week, he announced his opposition to the measure.

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