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STATE OF THE STATE

Gov. Lays Out Agenda of Concrete, Steel

A California rebuilding project requiring bond issues through 2014 is proposed to legislators in Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech.

January 06, 2006|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday launched a super-sized plan to rebuild the very foundations of California -- a $222-billion construction project to fortify freeways, schools, jails, ports and waterways.

Schwarzenegger used his annual State of the State speech to outline a decade-long blueprint for reshaping California to its core. If successful, he would be author of the state's largest public building program since the 1960s, when former Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown helped California absorb millions of new residents during a postwar boom.

In the 23-minute address to lawmakers, which was as much about rebuilding his own image as it was about repairing California, Schwarzenegger paid homage to past governors who "built the foundations of California's prosperity."

"They built California with steel, concrete, hard work and vision," he told legislators gathered in the Assembly chamber. "We must do all that and more."

Schwarzenegger's plan would provide money for hundreds of miles of new highways, carpool lanes and commuter rail lines, hundreds of new schools, two new prisons and a new crime lab. He would shore up the state's leaky levees and upgrade other flood-control systems.

The governor's aides said earlier Thursday that he wants a series of public bond issues, starting with $25 billion this year, placed before voters in five elections through the year 2014. In total, $68 billion in new government debt would be incurred to pay for the building program.

Schwarzenegger is counting on the willingness of the federal government to chip in tens of billions of dollars. His plan also would draw from gasoline taxes, school and county budgets, new tolls and fees on businesses and commuters, and partnerships with private businesses to meet the $222-billion price tag.

Republicans and Democrats alike greeted Schwarzenegger's speech with tepid applause and, later, guarded comments. In particular, lawmakers appeared stunned at the cost proposed by a governor who has been preaching fiscal responsibility.

"The governor is proposing a lot more spending than we are," said Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), referring to the Legislature's own infrastructure ideas. "It's unclear how he plans to pay for it."

Republican lawmakers said they were worried about too much government borrowing and about higher taxes disguised as "user fees." The governor needs Republican votes to get his proposal through the Legislature; two-thirds of lawmakers must approve it to place it on the ballot.

Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) lauded the governor for focusing on public works construction but stopped short of endorsing the proposal.

"We're already borrowing record amounts," McClintock said, "and our bond rating is the lowest in the country."

Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) cautioned: "We have to be sure that we are not hurting our children and our children's children."

Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Rusty Hammer was among those who praised the proposal, particularly the money for ports and traffic improvements. But Hammer also sounded a cautionary note.

"We want to make sure these bonds are not Christmas trees," Hammer said. "We want the highest-priority projects funded around the state, as opposed to having every legislator putting in their pet projects like ornaments on a Christmas tree."

The Republican governor offered his ambitious plan with his political reputation badly damaged and with Democrats girding to fight him for reelection. He began his speech with a contrite acknowledgment that he was too confrontational last year, leading to his stinging defeat in the November special election.

"I have absorbed my defeat and I have learned my lesson," Schwarzenegger said. "And the people, who always have the last word, sent a clear message -- cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground and fix the problems together. To my fellow Californians, I say -- message received."

After the governor finished the speech, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) playfully leaned a shoulder into the governor's side -- a warm gesture from a political foe who has sparred repeatedly with Schwarzenegger.

The problem the governor and lawmakers face is monumental. An estimated 500,000 people move to California every year. The state must accommodate the new residents, repair damage done by past and current ones and make improvements required by federal and state law such as seismic retrofitting and new pollution controls.

"A new California is coming whether we plan for it or not," Schwarzenegger said. "We cannot be overwhelmed by this reality. We cannot freeze in the face of this future."

California's repair and construction bill is staggering. Analysts estimate the tab at $75 billion over the next five years alone to bolster power plants, ports, dams, office buildings, prisons, mental hospitals, parks, levees, bridges and 50,000 miles of freeways.

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