SACRAMENTO — This had been Sacramento's lost year, a stretch marked by a budget meltdown and hyper-partisan rancor, mass veto threats and mounting public distrust of state government as usual.
But as the curtain dropped, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger performed as he has for half a dozen years in office: predictably unpredictable.
After threatening a mass veto to spur a big water deal, the governor reversed course, revved up his ballpoint pen and signed a surprising slate of legislation. It included bills he had vetoed in the past and a flurry of measures that steered sharply away from the socially conservative Republican base the governor has rarely embraced.
He outraged conservative Christians by approving a special day of recognition for slain gay rights icon Harvey Milk. He crossed the powerful National Rifle Assn. by signing stricter new rules for ammunition sales. To the ire of anti-tax groups, he backed a $2.3-billion Medi-Cal funding bill. Schwarzenegger even went along with measures he once ridiculed, including a ban on amputating cow tails and creating an official blueberry commission.
And in the final hours, the GOP governor backed down from his threat to kill scores of measures if lawmakers failed to forge a landmark deal to fix California's water problems.
Instead, legislative leaders agreed to press forward in the coming days, appearing eager to prove that big things still can happen inside the gold-domed Capitol of the Golden State.
Heading into Schwarzenegger's final year in office, his decision to forgo a mass veto "will be helpful" during the continuing water talks and beyond, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said. "It would have set a very negative tone."
But while the governor won concessions and a bit of compromise at the bargaining table, all sides remained far enough apart on key details that any potential water deal could yet unravel -- as such attempts have often done in the past.
Republicans say it's their top priority. Without it, "a candid assessment of the year's legislative output would probably be that it was modest," said Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo).
Meanwhile, some critics suggested that Schwarzenegger's brief bill-signing spree into the late hours Sunday was a tactical move to coax backing for his coveted water package.
"We think maybe he is trading votes on given bills to line up votes" for water, said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, which opposed the ammo bill.
Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman, said Schwarzenegger calls them as he sees them, and the veto threat helped prod the Legislature "to focus on water, which is exactly what they did."
In all, the governor's overall performance virtually mirrored his past ratio of bills signed and vetoed. He approved 696 bills and vetoed 257 this year. By signing 73% of the bills on his desk, Schwarzenegger virtually matched his average since coming to office and exceeded the 65% he recorded last year amid a contentious budget standoff.
Even with lawmakers pleased that a year's worth of work wasn't lost to a mass veto, the reviews were far from charitable from some corners of the state.
Dan Schnur, executive director of USC's Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, characterized the joint output of the Legislature and the governor as tepid at best in a deficit-racked year that was even worse.
"Even the Clippers are going to win a few games this year, but that doesn't make it a successful season," Schnur said.
Though signings outpaced vetoes by more than 2 to 1, the governor proved he's not afraid to say no. During his six years in office, Schwarzenegger has vetoed nearly twice as many bills as Ronald Reagan did in eight years: 1,673 versus 843.
Among this year's casualties was AB 2 by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-Los Angeles), which would have halted the insurance industry practice of canceling patients' coverage after they run up large medical bills.
Dev GnanaDev, president of the California Medical Assn., said Schwarzenegger's veto told Californians that "insurance company profits are more important than their access to healthcare."
Insurance firms and business leaders countered that the bill proposed unnecessary regulation and would have hurt the state's economic recovery.
Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank) lamented Schwarzenegger's rejection of his AB 64, which would have boosted new renewable-energy projects to help the state reach a 33% goal. "The governor has destroyed a landmark compromise," he said.
The Humane Society of the United States, meanwhile, chided Schwarzenegger for demonstrating a "schizophrenic record" on animal protection measures by vetoing AB 241 to combat puppy mills.
But the group also expressed delight over Schwarzenegger's signing of SB 135 by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), the dairy cow tail-docking bill the governor ridiculed during the summer budget battle.