SACRAMENTO — As a guest in the Legislature's house Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acted like a gentleman. But underlying the governor's address was an ominous message: Someone could get hurt this year.
Although Schwarzenegger's freshman year was marked by bipartisanship and compromise, his straightforward speech Wednesday took aim at the lifeblood of Democrats and of politics itself -- how money is spent, how constituents are rewarded and how elections are run.
If Schwarzenegger is serious about the agenda he offered, Democrats will have to accept what has previously been unacceptable. And Schwarzenegger will have to hold firm.
The governor clearly senses that this is his most important year if he wants to run for reelection in 2006 with serious accomplishments behind him. He is investing his political career in a single year of action, and with an opposition party controlling the statehouse.
In his speech, Schwarzenegger compared his task to war, invoking the image of California soldiers serving overseas: "When we ask them to risk their lives for democracy over there, how dare we not take the risk to reform our democracy here?"
Schwarzenegger would overhaul the pension plans of state unions, raising the ire of the Democrats' biggest political donors and supporters. He would place stricter limits on government spending, angering scores of interest groups. He would kill legislators' ability to draw their own district lines, perhaps ending safe reelections for many of them. He would force them to eliminate 1,000 political appointees, threatening their patronage base.
He proposed the politically explosive issue of merit raises for teachers -- vehemently opposed by many teachers unions. Throw in reforming the complicated and dysfunctional state prison system, ending freeway overcrowding, making home prices affordable for ordinary Californians and providing less expensive prescription drugs to low-income residents.
Amid all this, Schwarzenegger announced that he wants a special election this summer on some of the reform plans -- a very tight deadline even for a crisis.
Democrats said Wednesday that they were eager to work with Schwarzenegger on his plans, despite the intimidating workload. They may be feeling cooperative because they ended 2004 believing Schwarzenegger had not radically altered their way of life. They listened to his speech Wednesday with a less fearful, more nuanced view of the governor, who came to power quickly and without a clearly defined agenda.
Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said he looks forward to being Schwarzenegger's partner, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said: "We want to work with the governor.... He governs best when he governs from the center, when he is driven by solutions and not ideological preferences."
But the leaders questioned Schwarzenegger's devotion to the idea of an independent panel to draw California's legislative and congressional districts. Saying that the public doesn't care about redistricting, Perata and Nunez asked why a self-described populist would threaten to force the issue by taking it to voters when the people weren't demanding reform.
Nunez said in an interview: "If he calls a special election that is of no concern to the public and only to political insiders, then it's going to be more difficult for us to hold hands and walk down the aisle together."
Whatever else Schwarzenegger accomplishes this year, his most important task is closing the $8.1-billion gap between what the state takes in and what it spends. The budget cannot be taken to the ballot -- it is forged through compromise between legislators and the governor. This is where Democrats hold the cards: He needs them to pass a budget.
"No matter what he puts on the ballot, none of it is going to be particularly successful if the budget falls apart," said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Gov. Gray Davis.
South said Davis' political undoing started with the energy crisis and ended with the budget crisis, because he was seen as ineffective at moving his own party; he made too many compromises and the budget was late. "That problem still faces Arnold Schwarzenegger," South said, "and you have even more liberal Democrats in the Legislature now and you have even more conservative Republicans."
Last year, Schwarzenegger compromised with Democrats by agreeing not to radically overhaul the state's public employee pension system. He instead accepted a new union-approved plan with two categories for state employees. Newly hired workers would wait two years to enter the pension system but pick up the delayed benefits later, saving the state money in the short term.