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Legislators show they do some things right

October 06, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Put down the pitchforks. Stop hurling the bricks. Politicians in the state Capitol have not been total screw-ups this year.

Yes, the state budget was a record 85 days late in getting enacted and was roundly hooted. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger angered many -- mostly Democratic legislators -- by vetoing a record-high 35% of the bills that reached his desk.

The Legislature began the year by failing to pass the governor's universal healthcare bill that was overly ambitious given the plunging economy. And the governor's promise of 2008 becoming "the year of education reform" turned into just another broken New Year's resolution.

Pretty gloomy. But the scene wasn't all ugly. In some spots, it was downright visionary.

In fact, there were several admirable instances of politicians legislating the way they're ideally supposed to, using the system the way it's set up, by calmly conferring and compromising.

The No. 1 example was Sen. Darrell Steinberg's steering into law his sweeping "smart growth" proposal to control suburban sprawl, build homes closer to downtown and reduce commuter driving, thus decreasing climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Like Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the legislation isn't flashy. It's wonky. And substantive. California needed it 50 years ago.

There'll be incentives for communities and developers to compress growth. Communities will get first dibs on government transportation money. Residential home-builders will be granted relief from environmental red tape.

Steinberg worked for two years to build what he calls "the coalition of the impossible": local governments, home-builders and environmentalists. But he stopped short of trying to satisfy every interest.

Commercial property owners and manufacturers also sought environmental streamlining. But that could have cost Steinberg the support of environmentalists. The senator settled on a bill he could get passed as time was running out in the legislative session.

Then he had to sell the governor. There was business opposition, including from the influential California Chamber of Commerce. It helped that Steinberg had been elected the next Senate leader starting in December.

It helped especially this way: Schwarzenegger badly wants the Legislature to pass a hefty water bond measure next year, something in the $11-billion range.

The governor and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have been pushing for that, but making little progress. Schwarzenegger and Steinberg both capitalized on this desire for a waterworks deal in their deliberations over the land-use bill.

Schwarzenegger wanted to "make sure that Steinberg was a team player, and not just on this bill," says one administration insider.

Steinberg says he told Schwarzenegger that his success in building the anti-sprawl coalition "proves that the environmental community is willing to stretch. This could be a model for how we get a water deal done. But it's going to be very, very difficult for me to bring along the environmental community on much of anything else" if the land-use bill were to be vetoed.

No quid pro quo. Just straight talk. Maybe some winks.

Steinberg also solicited Feinstein's help, and assured her that he was "committed to trying to get a water deal."

The governor's staff debated whether Schwarzenegger should sign the bill, which practically every Republican lawmaker had opposed. But, in the end, Schwarzenegger embraced the measure as if it were his own. He was drawn to it as a weapon in the fight against global warming, his pet project.

In a signing ceremony last week, Schwarzenegger recalled that in 2006 he had signed a bill requiring a 30% cut in projected greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

"We got world attention," he said. "Little did they know . . . that two years later there would be a sequel. . . . When you come from the movie business, you love sequels."

Other significant bills that were passed and signed:

* Chemicals -- Two more wonky bills will launch an effort by the state to regulate chemicals linked to cancer and other deadly ailments. The measures by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) apparently are the most comprehensive anti-toxic, consumer protection laws in the country.

The key to this legislative success was that the lawmakers didn't aim at specific chemicals in products, as others have. So they didn't generate overpowering opposition from single, monied interests.

Also, their reliance on scientists -- rather than politicians -- to decide which chemicals are unacceptably toxic was reassuring to most of the industry.

The authors teamed with the Schwarzenegger administration to shape the legislation.

"This can be a model of how to work together to accomplish big things," Feuer says.

* Water -- This is a tale of better late than never.

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