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Gov.'s Use of Workers Criticized

Some saw a waste of resources when state employees readied a prop for an appearance of his. He says campaign funds will cover the cost.

March 26, 2005|Peter Nicholas and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — A corps of state carpenters and painters spent more than 51 hours on state time preparing an elaborate prop for one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's public appearances, a practice that a watchdog group says is a misuse of government employees.

Promoting his plan for budget restraints, Schwarzenegger appeared at the state fairgrounds last month next to a 25-foot model of the Capitol, twisting a "spigot" to shut off a flow of "red ink" symbolizing the state's spending habits.

Half a dozen carpenters and painters prepared the model -- hauled out of a warehouse for the occasion -- painting windows and doors on the plywood facade for the governor's photo opportunity and news conference.

"You're wasting government resources to highlight the waste of government resources," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "That he's willing to have his campaign pay for it is an acknowledgment that this is really not appropriate for employees of the government." Their pay totaled $36 an hour, according to representatives of the California Exposition & State Fair, on whose grounds the event occurred.

All told, 15 state workers were involved in staging the governor's appearance, performing tasks that included washing the shuttle buses used to drive reporters around the site, Cal Expo officials said. The cost was $4,543.

The money will be reimbursed by one of the governor's campaign committees, the California Recovery Team, according to Cal Expo. The agency sent an invoice to the committee Friday.

Noble said state workers should not have been mobilized, even if Schwarzenegger picks up the bill. Pressing them into service potentially diverts them from other tasks and puts them in the awkward position of not being able to refuse, he said.

Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director, said the governor's appearance was a legitimate state activity.

"We could have had the state pay for that," Stutzman said. "He was talking about legislation. The fact that we're willing to not have taxpayers bear the cost is to our credit."

A Cal Expo official said the workers were pleased to help. Because the State Fair is not until the summer, it is the off-season for the site and there is enough time for such projects, said Lezlie Puglia, an assistant general manager for Cal Expo.

"Every one of them was proud to work on the project as a way to show ourselves off," Puglia said.

The governor has been using theatrically staged events as he tries to build public support for his proposed changes in state political and budgetary practices. It is unclear how many government employees have been used to put on such events.

Schwarzenegger drove his military Humvee -- dubbed "Reform 1" -- down a Sacramento freeway earlier this month, en route to an Applebee's restaurant to gather signatures for proposed initiatives he has embraced.

The former action star recently traveled to the Pick-N-Pull wrecking yard near Sacramento to preside over the flattening of a few vehicles. He was promoting a state program that encourages people to destroy high-polluting junkers.

In December, he flipped a symbolic "switch" at the California Independent Service Operator to underscore his efforts to improve the state's electric transmission system and avoid blackouts. A mock transmission tower was set up in the middle of the control room.

At a car-rental parking lot in San Diego in November, Schwarzenegger stood in front of two bank trucks loaded with fake bags of money to illustrate what he perceives as problems with the public pension system.

"The door's kicked wide open and the money's flying out and bleeding our state dry," he said. "These tax dollars should be building highways and should be putting cops on the street and nurses in hospitals."

Noble said such events amounted to "the salesmanship part of governing that we're seeing more and more of. It's governing as a political campaign. It's one of those things that he's becoming known for -- the visual effect, the symbolic visual act."

At the Cal Expo event, Schwarzenegger was asked about the cost. "Don't worry about it," he said.

"This is not the taxpayers of California, OK? We -- this is all paid for by people that are raising money for those kinds of things. And we're going to get the next time a better special effects person involved so that it sprays the red ink all over the room, so there is more drama."

The governor's political opponents see things differently.

"We're glad the governor appreciates the value of state workers, but we don't think they should be used for campaign events," said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).

"This administration doesn't know the line between where governing begins and campaign events end, and this is further evidence."

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