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Budget talks as a reality TV show?

Schwarzenegger says he would enjoy televising or webcasting some of the negotiations on California's fiscal crisis.

July 05, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Would state budget negotiations be more fruitful as a reality television show?

In a Capitol notorious for secret deals hashed out by powerful leaders, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he would enjoy televising or webcasting some of the talks on the state's fiscal crisis. His counterparts in the Legislature say they are willing to give it a try.

So far, their approaches have led to a deficit that has swollen to $26.3 billion and a cash supply so low that the government is issuing IOUs instead of paying all its bills.

Schwarzenegger has been touting a need for transparency in the face of evidence that Californians don't trust their government. He even says he would like his office to be a "glass house" so visitors can see inside.

"Everyone will be performing more, but I think eventually they will get used to it that there is cameras around," he said in a recent interview.

Even if budget talks were filmed a la "The Osbournes" or "Jon & Kate Plus 8," it's unlikely Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders would slap each other silly, cheat on their spouses, trash office furniture or engage in other behavior worthy of a decent reality show. Nor is it clear whether anyone could be voted out of a meeting.

But cameras might have made clear, for instance, what made Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) bolt out of a recent negotiating session in the governor's office.

"He broke it. He should fix it," she sputtered, struggling to contain her exasperation. Other legislative leaders offered no insight when they emerged.

"I wouldn't be able to speculate on why she said that," ventured Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta).

Hollingsworth had previously been adamant about telling the public what happens in "Big Five" meetings between the governor and the state's top four legislative leaders. But last week he would tell reporters only a few of the topics that were discussed, without giving details.

The governor has some experience with reality television, at least cinematically. In "The Running Man," a 1987 movie based on a novel by Stephen King, Schwarzenegger played a game show contestant who must escape hunters trying to kill him.

Though lawmakers may have a less dire agenda, at least in budget negotiations, the governor said it would be productive to engage in "a debate in front of the people."

"I would like to expose the problems and let everyone answer them," Schwarzenegger told a Sacramento radio station recently, suggesting he might challenge Republicans who have resisted budget cuts in state prisons.

"If someone says, 'Well, I think that maybe we should not go and rattle the cage in the prison system, then it's great for me to be able to ask . . . 'Why not? Who are you trying to protect and why?' "

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said televising negotiations "would be illuminating for the public."

"I think the more the public recognizes that these are real people making decisions, and that there are in fact choices to be made, the better the process and the system will work," Steinberg said. He added ruefully, "It means I'd have to wear a tie all the time."

In New York, former Gov. George Pataki held budget negotiations for reporters in his office in 2005, attempting to break a 20-year streak of late spending plans.

"He was able to effectively use them to put pressure on the leaders because they would have to articulate in public why they were opposed to what Pataki wanted to do," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany. "When you're talking in secret, you could say whatever you want or you could say nothing."

New York broke its run of late budgets that year, although there were other factors besides the public meetings, Horner said. Since then, state leaders have televised budget talks only sporadically.

In California, Big Five meetings can take weeks or months to break through gridlock.

In February, after the leaders emerged from closed doors with a budget deal several months into the new fiscal year, interest groups criticized the plan for lacking public input. One of the Republican leaders who had agreed to tax hikes was ousted. Another withstood an overthrow attempt but gave up his post later. And voters killed five of the six ballot measures produced in the meetings for the May special election.

Those events led to the creation of a joint legislative budget committee, which heard exhaustive public testimony and proposed a budget that was rejected by Republicans and the governor because it included taxes. Bass predicted several weeks ago that the budget would be resolved through the committee process, but she said she would be open to televised negotiations with the governor "in concept" if they became necessary.

The Assembly's Republican leader, Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, joked that even if he had to go on camera, he would be communicating beyond its reach: "I'll just be using my BlackBerry like mad."

The governor, who Twitters and has his own YouTube page, says he'd like to be onstage whenever he's at the Capitol.

"I would like to actually have my office be in a glass house," he said, "so that the people that walk outside or that walk in the hallway literally can look in my office . . . and see me working and see everyone working. It's the people's money and they should be able to look in."

Asked why the governor doesn't just open his office to the public, a spokesman said the statement was "a metaphor in his support for transparency."

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.

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