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From Wages to Canadian Drugs, Bills Contain Risks for Governor

May 29, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — For six months, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to keep his position unknown on a host of potentially divisive issues. Now he is going to have to start filling in the blanks.

After acceding repeatedly to a Republican governor determined to deliver on campaign promises, the Democrats who control the state Senate and Assembly this week approved a number of measures that likely will force the governor to make some difficult choices.

The Assembly endorsed raising the minimum wage to $7.75, a 15% increase. If the more liberal Senate concurs, as expected, the governor will have to choose between being a champion of low-wage workers or signing a bill that small businesses and the California Chamber of Commerce say will cost the state jobs.

The Legislature is also poised to approve a handful of measures that would encourage individual Californians and state agencies to import prescription drugs from Canada, where they are cheaper. The notion is popular among elderly voters and could save the state millions.

But approving those bills would put Schwarzenegger on a collision course with the pharmaceutical industry and the Republican administration in Washington, both of which oppose drug imports as unsafe.

Schwarzenegger may have to choose between politically appealing measures and some of his bigger campaign supporters in other areas.

Car dealers, for instance, will strongly urge him to veto a measure that would allow used car buyers to return a car within three days of sale.

The bill passed the Assembly this week. Automotive interests have donated $824,335 to Schwarzenegger, according to arnoldwatch.org, a consumer activist website.

"In getting into the grist of the legislative session, the public will start seeing his points of view on many issues," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Until now, lawmakers, still somewhat shell-shocked by last year's recall and the implicit criticism of them that it included, generally have avoided confrontations with the governor.

Fearful that the public would reproach them for any gridlock and cowed by the neophyte governor's deft threats of initiatives, lawmakers over the last half year have rolled back the car tax, repealed the law giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and agreed to business-supported changes to workers' compensation rules.

But that is changing somewhat as lawmakers -- many of whom are up for reelection this fall -- press forward with their own priorities.

"It was only a matter of time before they would start doing that," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant. "You have to remember that the liberal lawmakers have their own labor and liberal constituencies."

He said that he expected many of the measures would be greeted with a flurry of vetoes. "It may remind everyone that Arnold is a Republican. He didn't run as an independent."

The governor may, of course, be able to avoid some of these confrontations. Influential business lobbies will be hard at work trying to kill the measures as they arrive in the second chamber of the Legislature.

Rob Stutzman, the governor's communications director, says the administration is likely to intervene on legislation that appears near final approval.

"Once we get through the budget and these bills come through the second house, it's certainly plausible we'll get more involved in negotiating legislation that would be more acceptable for us to sign, or signal to authors that they can expect vetoes," Stutzman said. "This governor is not going to have any trouble rifling vetoes upstairs, particularly on legislation that he believes would harm the state's business climate."

But some controversial bills will certainly make it through.

One bill that could put the governor in a quandary would prohibit candidates from taking out more than $100,000 in personal loans for their campaigns.

The bill was inspired by the $4-million loan Schwarzenegger took out in last year's recall.

He also could face another bill restricting donations to ballot-measure committees such as the ones the governor uses to push his agenda.

Both measures could test his commitment to clean up politics in California.

Another issue will return to the Capitol on Wednesday, when Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) plans to introduce a revised bill restoring driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

His move was prompted by frustration over the six-month effort to negotiate a compromise with Schwarzenegger's aides.

And then there are the colorful frills of California legislating: the quirky proposals on obscure topics that few other states would consider addressing.

Will the governor support banning sales of cruelly produced foie gras? Does the man who was an action hero to a generation of teens now tell them it is too dangerous for them to use their cellphones in the car or go to tanning salons?

While the topic of each bill may appear petty, each one would force Schwarzenegger to make choices: between regulation and industry, between public safety and freedom.

August may well be Sacramento's hottest month for such issues. That is when the Legislature will push through remaining bills at the end of the session.

But some measures may ignite conflict as early as June, when tensions between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature could be exacerbated by negotiations over the state budget.

Schwarzenegger's backers say they expect him to be willing to fight.

"I always say the most important thing we need is adult supervision and I think Arnold is adult supervision," said Republican Assembly leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. "That will mean vetoing much of what moved and passed."

Times staff writer Robert Salladay contributed to this report.

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