Divided legislature may be main Schwarzenegger test

Agenda: The budget crisis is a beast, but the new governor's biggest headache could come from dealing with highly partisan lawmakers.

November 16, 2003|By THE ECONOMIST

The bomber jackets, open-necked shirts and unpressed chinos are back in the closet; the new uniform is a suit and tie. What looked right for Arnold Schwarzenegger on the campaign trail would look a bit insolent in the corridors of government.

The movie star knows how to dress the part. But does he know how to govern? One obvious precedent for the 38th governor of California, who will be sworn into office tomorrow on the steps of the Sacramento Capitol, is the sainted Ronald Reagan.

But it could just as easily be Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the wrestler who in 1998 rode a populist wave to become a one-shot, ultimately ineffectual governor of Minnesota.

The skeptics are already preparing the political obituaries. Unlike Reagan, Arnold is too inexperienced. There is still that alleged past sexual misbehavior to rake over. ("Playful," according to the supposedly remorseful Schwarzenegger; grossly offensive, according to the alleged playthings.)

The state's problems are too intractable. The budget is enough to make any Californian moneyman tear out his transplant. Creative accounting was used to close a deficit of $38 billion for this financial year (ending June 2004), but it has left a "structural" deficit of about $8 billion.

Add another $4 billion because of Schwarzenegger's promise to rescind a tripling of vehicle-licensing fees on Day One of his tenure, and another $13 billion if the courts rule that recent bond issues, approved by the legislature but not by the voters, are unconstitutional. Also, Schwarzenegger needs to come up with a budget for the next financial year by Jan. 10.

However, the underlying challenge has to do with the partisan nature of Californian politics, where the state presents an extreme version of the national picture.

Thanks to redistricting, the state legislature is split between increasingly left-wing Democrats (who have big majorities in both houses) and a rump of increasingly hard-line Republicans, typified by Tom McClintock, the conservative state senator who refused to bow out of the governor's race. How hard is Arnold - who claimed he would "send a message to the political class that it will no longer be business as usual" - prepared to push the legislature?

This question is of interest well beyond Sacramento. Virtually every other governor in the country faces a sharply divided state legislature.

Some Republicans point to Washington, D.C., for inspiration. Facing a divided Congress, and with a far weaker electoral mandate than Schwarzenegger's, George Bush in 2001 charged off in an unambiguously rightward direction and managed to push through a huge tax cut.

But Bush was a conservative with the backing of his party which, at the time, narrowly controlled Congress (until the White House's "extremism" drove Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords out of the GOP, temporarily handing control of the Senate to the Democrats). There are no real Schwarzenegger Republicans in Sacramento; most of his party derides Arnold, with his Kennedy-clan wife and his liberal views on abortion and homosexuals, as "Republican-lite." To achieve anything, he has to win over some Democrats.

One ominous portent for the gubernator is his current spat with the Democratic state attorney general, Bill Lockyer. Recently, to the fury of the Schwarzenegger camp, Lockyer suddenly revived talk of the "gropinator," calling for an independent inquiry into the sex allegations.

Can this really be the same Lockyer who boasted of crossing party lines to vote for Schwarzenegger? In the context of Sacramento politics, it can be. Lockyer, with his eye on the gubernatorial election due in 2006, does not want to cede ground to Phil Angelides, the Democratic state treasurer who is already hounding Schwarzenegger over his promise to balance the budget without raising taxes.

Despite this, there is a case for forgetting the pessimism "and all that stuff" (as Schwarzenegger sentences tend to end). If Arnold stands for anything, it is "thinking positive," a mantra that sounds like less of a cliche when you consider his extraordinary career.

He has already bullied into life a team of advisers who span the political spectrum from Willie Brown, the liberal mayor of San Francisco, to George Shultz, a former Republican secretary of state. His education adviser is Richard Riordan, a former mayor of Los Angeles, and his finance director is Donna Arduin, who has balanced budgets in New York, Michigan and Florida.

Already there is talk of a clever route out of the budget mess: Schwarzenegger will ask the voters to approve both a borrowing of $20 billion and a limit on future spending. In other words, there will be enough money to cover the deficit, the governor will have kept to the letter (if not entirely the spirit) of his pledge not to raise taxes, and he will have sidelined the legislature.

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