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Capitol Battle Lines Harden

Schwarzenegger is ratcheting up the rhetoric against legislators, but Democrats are refusing to hew to his agenda.

January 28, 2005|Peter Nicholas and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — There's no more talk of friendly dinners at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Brentwood home, of lawmakers parading into the governor's smoking tent in the Capitol courtyard to bridge differences and end gridlock.

The governor who once embraced the Legislature as a helpful "partner" now depicts it as a plodding hindrance.

Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he has no appetite for the pragmatic concessions to the Legislature that defined his first year in office. Unless lawmakers pass his 2005 agenda within weeks, he has said, he'll go around them, letting voters decide in a special election whether to restrain spending, curb pension benefits and redraw voting districts.

To lawmakers, some of this is hauntingly familiar. Former Gov. Gray Davis, the man Schwarzenegger ousted, demanded in 1999 that lawmakers "implement my vision." It backfired. Years of mutual enmity and legislative paralysis followed.

Democratic leaders are telling Schwarzenegger that unless he reverts to a more conciliatory style, he can expect much the same. The governor is pressuring lawmakers to give a hearing to his proposals, announced early this month. He said he has seen little progress. No legislation has been passed; no committee hearings have been held on his measures.

The Democratic leadership counters that it has its own priorities, that the governor cannot expect instant consideration of measures that would rattle state government to its core, and that Schwarzenegger will have to wait.

Each side held a news conference Thursday to make its case.

Schwarzenegger appeared before reporters to clear up what he said was a misconception: that his office hadn't given the Legislature anything in writing to consider. Clutching a stack of bills, he said the paper was proof that lawmakers had in their possession concrete proposals.

Then it was Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's turn. The Los Angeles Democrat said lawmakers had no intention of acting on Schwarzenegger's agenda with any haste. More important was balancing the budget and protecting schools and the poorest Californians from budget reductions, Nunez said.

Schwarzenegger seems to be setting up lawmakers as a foil by imposing tight deadlines and quickly complaining about inaction, analysts said.

Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican political consultant, said Schwarzenegger tried to work with the Legislature last year on reforms "and everyone accused him of caving in."

"I have little doubt he has pretty much made up his mind that he is preparing for a November election," Hoffenblum said.

The Democrats appear unmoved. Beginning next week, they will leave the Capitol on a retreat. At some point after they return, they will take up the governor's plan, Nunez said.

"We'll have full hearings on each and every one of his proposals at the right time," Nunez said, criticizing Schwarzenegger's ideas as "half-cooked."

"The governor needs to get his roles straight," said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. "As a Hollywood character, it may be OK to shoot first and ask questions later. But as a leader of state government, that approach is irresponsible to the taxpayers of California."

Schwarzenegger has used deadlines before to prod the Legislature.

Last year, he threatened to take to the ballot an initiative overhauling the workers' compensation insurance system unless lawmakers retooled it on their own. It worked. A few deadlines were missed, but in the end, lawmakers complied and a ballot fight was averted.

This time around, deadlines are tighter. Schwarzenegger said he may begin gathering signatures for an initiative drive in March. A special election might then come in November.

Schwarzenegger wants lawmakers to put on the ballot measures that would reward teachers based on merit, carve new legislative and congressional district lines, cut spending across the board when the budget falls out of balance, and convert the state's pension system to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

One of the measures, a plan to control state spending, was introduced Jan. 20. The redistricting and merit pay proposals were presented to the Legislature on Jan. 13. Democrats said there is not enough time for the Legislature to responsibly act on the governor's complex agenda by the deadline he has set.

"It suggests he doesn't really understand government all that well," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant.

In any fight with the Legislature, Schwarzenegger has an advantage. His approval rating among voters is in the 60s -- about twice as high as that of the Legislature.

But a new poll shows that the governor's Democratic support is ebbing. Democrats in the Legislature may be trying to exploit that emerging vulnerability, hoping their call for increased education and healthcare spending will resonate more with voters than Schwarzenegger's plea for spending limits.

Yet the governor may be looking past his legislative opponents, viewing the current skirmishing as a necessary prelude to a battle at the polls.

In a speech Wednesday at the Sacramento Press Club, Schwarzenegger seemed more focused on a special election than on achieving a breakthrough with the Legislature.

He even previewed the narrative he would present to voters, casting himself as a reformer facing down a discredited political class.

"It will be the governor with his partners -- the people of California -- against the legislators," he said. "Against the politics as usual. And it will be reform. And change versus status quo and the special interests. This is the way we've framed the whole thing. And this is what the battle will be all about."

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