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Four speeches to set priorities for governor's second term

Schwarzenegger's focus in the next week will be on infrastructure, healthcare insurance and the environment.

January 03, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Over the next seven days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, new crutches close at hand, will give a series of speeches that lay out his policy ambitions for the next four years: broader access to healthcare coverage, cleaner skies and improved roads.

The governor, still recovering from a broken right leg suffered in a holiday skiing accident, will deliver his inaugural address outlining a long-term vision for California when he is sworn in for a second term Friday. He is also expected on Monday to put forward his plan for revamping the state's healthcare system.

The next day, he will make his annual State of the State speech, and his budget proposal is scheduled the day after.

In these four speeches, Schwarzenegger will offer his most concrete proposals yet for insuring the millions of Californians who lack healthcare coverage, the centerpiece of his 2007 agenda. But he also hopes to establish a legacy as a builder on a par with former Gov. Pat Brown.

Schwarzenegger wants to trigger another round of public construction, on top of the $43-billon bond program that voters approved in the November election. He will try to resurrect pieces of the construction package that he rolled out a year ago when he initially released his infrastructure plan: new prisons, courts and water storage. The Legislature said no to those projects.

"The governor proposed a series of infrastructure improvements last year, some of which were acted upon, some not," said his communications director, Adam Mendelsohn. "We still have water storage issues that need to be addressed. We still have a great deal of transportation issues that need to be addressed."

Normally an icon of fitness, Schwarzenegger begins his new term in the early phase of a convalescence expected to last two months. He had surgery on his broken right leg Dec. 26 and was released Saturday from St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

The governor said then in a statement that he was "feeling good" and planned to "tackle important issues like making healthcare more affordable, investing in and improving our infrastructure and protecting our environment."

Hoping to assuage concerns of Republican lawmakers worried about the state's mounting debt, Schwarzenegger wants private industry to pick up part of the construction tab through partnerships with government.

For example, business groups eager to speed the flow of goods might cover the costs of new roads if the state, in turn, gets the projects built more quickly.

And prisons would be a huge investment. The governor has already announced that he wants to ease rampant overcrowding by adding 78,000 new beds, at a cost of $10.9 billion.

After halting attempts to cast himself as a reformer, Schwarzenegger is determined to reinvent himself as a champion of spacious new freeways suited to a swelling population. For inspiration, he has been reading speeches that Brown gave as governor in the 1960s.

California added college campuses, built thousands of miles of freeway and expanded its water storage capacity on Brown's watch.

None of what Schwarzenegger is planning would be easy to pull off. The state's financial picture is grim.

Though unexpected revenues have shrunk the record shortfalls that California faced under former Gov. Gray Davis, the state still spends more than it takes in. It is estimated that when the new fiscal year begins July 1, the deficit will be $5.5 billion.

Aggressive borrowing in the Schwarzenegger era has also boosted California's debt. By 2009 the state will have borrowed so much that 8.4% of the budget will go toward paying off debt. Wall Street experts say the figure should not exceed 6%.

Elizabeth Hill, the Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst, wrote in a November report: "California should be running projected operating surpluses instead of deficits."

And the governor confronts a dicey political climate.

His fellow Republicans want him to cut the deficit. They also say they will oppose any plan that saddles business with new healthcare costs or drains the state budget to cover millions of the uninsured.

"We have to be very cautious and go slow," said Michael Villines (R-Clovis), leader of the Assembly's Republicans.

Though Democrats control the Legislature, Schwarzenegger must win support from his fellow Republicans to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass the state budget.

As the governor ingratiated himself with Democratic leaders last year, many Republicans stewed silently, aware that open insurrection might undermine his reelection prospects. Now that the race is over, the fissures are more visible. Assemblyman George Plescia of San Diego was ousted as GOP leader two days after the election, in part because Republicans wanted someone in the job who would stand up forcefully to the governor.

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