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Gov. calls on state to borrow and build more

January 10, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for another multibillion-dollar wave of borrowing Tuesday for new reservoirs, courthouses, classrooms and prison beds -- core public resources that, he said, are strained by California's growing population.

In his annual State of the State speech, the governor laid out a plan for $43.3 billion in bonds over the next three years to pay for a round of public construction that would surpass what voters approved in the November election.

If Schwarzenegger can persuade lawmakers to bring his proposal to the ballot -- no easy feat, given widespread worries about state finances -- voters would be asked to approve the new borrowing in the 2008 and 2010 elections.

The new construction would amount to a second installment in what Schwarzenegger says will be a continuing effort to prepare California for an anticipated 30% surge in population over the next two decades.

Worried that negotiations over how to spend the money might descend into a free-for-all, Schwarzenegger urged lawmakers to put California's broad interests first.

"Will the process turn into a pork-fest as it did in Washington with all the earmarks and the backroom deals?" Schwarzenegger said to a joint session of the Legislature gathered in the Assembly chamber. "Or, when we have allocated the spending, will the people say, 'They spent our money wisely'? "

Still recovering from a broken leg suffered in a Dec. 23 skiing accident, Schwarzenegger entered the front of the chamber on metal crutches. Looking thinner, he gingerly walked the length of the room as lawmakers applauded.

The state's new lieutenant governor, Democrat John Garamendi, introduced the governor, calling him "courageous." Reflecting the new political dynamics in the Capitol, Democrats applauded the remark as Republicans largely stayed silent.

Schwarzenegger has angered fellow Republicans with his turn to the left, evidenced most recently by his call for expanding healthcare coverage through levies on doctors, hospitals and businesses.

Early reaction to the governor's speech suggested deep Republican dismay.

To get his borrowing plan to the ballot, Schwarzenegger will need a two-thirds vote of the Legislature -- something that can be achieved only with Republican consent.

GOP Senate leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), citing Schwarzenegger's contention that he is now a "centrist," said: "The governor deserves credit for identifying problems and trying to get resolution." But his idea of the political center "is different than our idea of center."

In his 24-minute address, Schwarzenegger touted an ambitious agenda.

A day earlier, he had laid out his plan for extending health insurance to all Californians. On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger said he was not wedded to any particular method of reaching that goal.

"So all ideas, regardless of origin, are still on the table," he said.

Schwarzenegger also said that he would ask the Legislature for money to put in place a law aimed at curbing global warming.

And he said he would renew his effort to invigorate California's elections system by stripping lawmakers of the power to carve voting districts, giving the job to an independent commission.

The State of the State speech was Schwarzenegger's fourth. In the first two, he was clearly influenced by the 2003 recall election. He cast himself as a political outsider intent on redeeming a promise to upend Sacramento.

No more. In Tuesday's speech, he said he wanted to work within the system, not remake it.

"Usually, when a governor gives his State of the State address, he talks about his vision," the governor said. "This year I want to talk about our vision, because I think we all want the same thing for Californians."

But not all lawmakers -- whether Republican or Democrat -- want to borrow and build on the scale Schwarzenegger envisions. Schwarzenegger had sought to do much of the job a year ago, but the Legislature cut his plans approximately in half before putting the proposals on the ballot.

"We have to cautiously wade into all of this," said Mike Villines of Clovis, leader of the Assembly's Republicans. "Infrastructure's important. We went through a lot of work last year. There's a lot we can do this year. But I don't think Californians are ready to step up and say let's go borrowing all that money."

In the November election, voters approved $42.6 billion in borrowing to build 10,000 classrooms and renovate an additional 38,000, among other projects.

With the governor's proposal, California would add 15,000 classrooms to those and renovate 40,000 more.

Worried about overcrowding in state prisons, Schwarzenegger also would use $10.9 billion in new borrowing to add 78,000 prison beds. At present, thousands of inmates are crammed into dining rooms, TV rooms and hallways, he said.

The infrastructure bonds that voters approved in November did not include money for prisons.

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