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Gov. to Woo Dems in '06

A reelection-minded Schwarzenegger may adopt such issues as healthcare for kids, homelessness as he seeks less contentious agenda.

October 16, 2005|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Even as his battle with Democrats and their union supporters continues, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is preparing to adopt some of his opponents' most important issues as his own next year, when he will be campaigning for reelection.

Schwarzenegger wants to focus on health insurance for children, homelessness and big building projects that have been the hallmark of some Democratic governors, administration officials and others said -- an effort to craft a less confrontational agenda than this year's.

The Republican governor is also planning a more measured approach to changing the state's pension system for public employees. He aborted a controversial pension overhaul last spring after enraging police and firefighters unions and the Democratic legislators whom they support.

Schwarzenegger has spent months battling unions in a special election campaign that has cost both sides a combined $120 million, with less than four weeks to go before election day. Meanwhile, his popularity among Californians has plummeted.

The 2006 agenda could make him appear conciliatory and force Democrats to debate important policy changes with him as he runs for reelection. Little was achieved in the Legislature to resolve the state's biggest problems this year as the administration and lawmakers bickered over the Nov. 8 special election. Both sides said a less bruising year would be welcome.

"Win, lose or draw in this election, after the nuclear war I am determined not to have a nuclear winter," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who has met with Schwarzenegger regularly at the governor's Brentwood home and in the Capitol to discuss policy.

Rob Stutzman, the governor's communications director, said that after the bloodbath of the special election campaign, the agenda being forged for next year "gives the Democrats all the opportunities in the world to work in a bipartisan manner toward commonly shared public policy objectives."

The new agenda does not necessarily mean there will be peace between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature. If history repeats, the governor's reelection campaign will probably cloud efforts at cooperation.

Regardless, the governor's aides said the infrastructure plan would be Schwarzenegger's signature proposal next year.

His staff is already working with Democratic leaders on a plan to overhaul California's jammed ports and freeways, and hospitals that need seismic retrofitting. One Democratic proposal would ask voters to approve a bond measure in June for as much as $15 billion to pay for such projects.

Administration aides and Democrats alike say the public responds positively when the two groups work together. Indeed, Schwarzenegger's popularity has declined by about 20 percentage points since December, when he told protesting nurses he was "always kicking their butts" and the public war with Democrats began.

Infrastructure projects will also help some of Schwarzenegger's business donors. Local governments, developers and engineers have been pushing new building projects through the California Infrastructure Coalition, which is managed by the office of Schwarzenegger's main fundraiser, Marty Wilson.

Bruce Cain, director of the UC Academic Center in Washington and an expert on California politics, said Schwarzenegger seems to recognize "the implicit failure of the confrontational strategy" he pursued this year.

"The question now is: Have you burned your bridges?" Cain said. "Can you win back trust" from Democrats and others "after having such a confrontational and vitriolic election? I think all of us would question whether that is even possible."

Most of the governor's plans are still being written. But in his public comments and in interviews with administration officials, an outline is emerging.

Beyond the push to repair roads, ports and hospitals, Schwarzenegger has told his staff members he wants to cover the estimated 6.6 million Californians who have no health insurance. Officials said they are considering a variety of options, such as putting more nurses and doctors in schools and expanding prevention programs with the help of federal waivers.

They are also looking at programs being debated and implemented in other states, such as a Wisconsin plan to grant vouchers for buying basic health insurance paid for with a payroll tax. One idea would require all Californians to obtain health insurance, much as drivers are required to have car insurance.

But because the state expects another budget shortfall next year, the governor's health officials said they are narrowing their focus to the state's 780,000 uninsured children and teenagers.

Last week, Schwarzenegger was criticized for vetoing a Democratic bill to expand the state's Healthy Families insurance program. S. Kimberly Belshe, the governor's health secretary, said he "has been very clear about his interest in providing health coverage to more low-income uninsured children" next year but wants to make sure the state can pay for it.

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