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Democrats Have Own Rebuilding Ideas

January 28, 2006|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Legislature's Democratic majority is preparing to jettison whole sections of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to rebuild California's public works, including expansion of jails, renovation of courthouses and miles of highway upgrades.

Democratic leaders said they intended to substitute their own priorities, which include building affordable housing, cleaning up polluted urban areas and renovating hospitals to protect them from earthquakes.

Unnerved by the proposal's price tag, they also may halve the $68-billion debt to state taxpayers that Schwarzenegger wants to spend mending and adding to 10,300 miles of roads, repairing dilapidated public buildings, shoring up aging levees and bolstering other infrastructure. The governor's plan to expand highways in fast-growing suburban areas would probably be downsized.

Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans, implicitly tagging their party leader's plan as fiscally irresponsible, also want to limit borrowing.

"I'm open at looking at how deeply [Schwarzenegger] wants to invest here," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). "But I do think he went too far, and I think we have to scale that back significantly in order to make a manageable and smart investment in infrastructure."

Richard Costigan, the governor's legislative secretary, said lawmakers' narrowing focus may undermine Schwarzenegger's intent, as he said in his recent State of the State address, to rise above the kind of planning in which "California has invested piecemeal, crisis by crisis, traffic jam by traffic jam."

"We have spent over five election cycles -- 10 years -- $40 billion-plus in bonds, and there's never been a comprehensive approach," Costigan said in an interview. "Do you want history to repeat itself?"

Lawmakers from both parties have embraced the governor's call for an ambitious public works program. All sides need something to show voters before the fall election.

And there is wide agreement that the state's long-neglected roads and ports need improvement to ease the movement of goods. Democratic leaders proposed their own public works packages last year, but Schwarzenegger asked them to hold off.

A poll released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 65% of the electorate would back a $25-billion infrastructure bond. Schwarzenegger envisions borrowing as the first stage of a decade-long plan that would also tap federal money and other sources to spend $222 billion on the state's physical foundations.

Legislators are racing to make a March 10 deadline for placing a completed package before voters in the June primary election. But the complexity of the task, and potential conflicts ahead, make the November ballot more likely.

That could find Democratic legislators campaigning with Schwarzenegger for passage of their bond measures at the same time they are urging voters to vote against him in the gubernatorial race.

Meanwhile, a number of disagreements threaten to bog down negotiations. One is how to finance all the building. Assembly Republicans this week proposed paying for $35 billion in construction over the next decade from the state treasury instead of borrowing for it. Democratic leaders quickly dismissed the idea as unworkable without substantial sacrifices in other areas of state spending.

GOP lawmakers want to ease environmental restrictions on construction, give builders more say in how transportation projects are designed and allow building without union-level wages.

All are subjects the Legislature has sparred over in the past. Though Republicans are the minority, bond measures require support of two-thirds of the Legislature, and GOP votes are needed to pass them and put them on the ballot. Republicans, who don't share all of the Democrats' priorities, are insisting that they play a central role in shaping the plan.

Rifts are also widening over topics that all sides agree should be included. For example, Schwarzenegger wants to spend $2.6 billion on public charter schools, a sum many Democrats consider excessive.

The governor's proposal also includes new roads in traditionally Republican suburban areas; Democrats want to spend more transportation money in urban areas, where most of their constituents are.

A power struggle has begun over how much authority the Schwarzenegger administration should have in choosing which projects to fund, and over what role lawmakers would have in supervising the spending. Under the governor's plan, for instance, $2.5 billion would be spent on water projects without ever going through the Legislature.

"The governor's plan basically says, 'Give us the money; we'll get back to you on how we'll spend it,' " said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland).

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