Governor Schwarzenegger surprises, confounds

Critics, supporters don't know yet what to expect

December 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES - After a month in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to surprise his supporters and confound his critics.

In a show of bipartisan comity a week ago, Schwarzenegger gathered leaders of both parties in his office to sign a package of measures designed to ease California's chronic budget woes. He elaborately praised Democratic lawmakers who had helped push through the package over objections of some conservative Republicans.

On Thursday, six days later, Schwarzenegger angrily accused the Democrats who control the Legislature of skipping town without dealing with a $2.5 billion shortfall for local governments brought on by his reduction of the state's car tax. He invoked never-before-used emergency powers to cut spending and funnel payments to cities and counties.

"Since the legislative leadership refuses to act," Schwarzenegger said in his gruffest tough-guy voice, "I will act without them."

The rapid-fire actions and the abrupt change in the governor's tone left heads spinning in Sacramento, particularly among Democrats who are used to having their way in the capital.

"I think he's still trying to figure out how he's going to govern and what he's going to be when he grows up," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, a Democrat from Long Beach who chairs the budget committee.

Oropeza said she was among those who appeared with Schwarzenegger last week to hail the passage of the fiscal package, which includes a $15 billion deficit-reduction bond and a constitutional spending limit proposal, which will appear on the March ballot.

She said that Schwarzenegger's actions this week were disheartening and could portend a return to the gridlock that paralyzed Sacramento and fueled the voter anger that led to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis.

"It was a real high last week to stand with the governor at a press conference," Oropeza said. "I felt we'd have a new day in Sacramento, and now we're back to the same partisan baloney. It's really disappointing."

She and others said that Schwarzenegger's actions this week served to help local governments cope with the revenue they lost when Schwarzenegger rolled back a tripling of the vehicle registration this year by Davis to help close a huge budget gap.

Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, said that Schwarzenegger's declaration of a fiscal emergency after repealing the car tax increase was "like an arsonist calling the fire department." He said that all of Schwarzenegger's actions over the past month only served to worsen the state's fiscal problems and were part of the reason for Wall Street's jaundiced view of California's debt. All three major bond rating agencies have lowered California's credit rating, leaving the state's rating at near junk bond status.

Others with less of a stake in the capital battles find Schwarzenegger's brawny approach to governing refreshing after five years of Davis' cautious centrism.

"He promised action, action, action, and whatever else you think, he's delivering," said John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. "He's taking the initiative and making Democrats respond to him."

Pitney said that because of Schwarzenegger's show-business background many compare him to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

But Pitney said he sees a different model.

"I think the closest analogy is not Reagan but Lyndon Johnson, whose constant theme of his career is finding power where no one else ever thought to look," he said. "He has a Johnsonian instinct for power."

Despite the drama of Schwarzenegger's first weeks in office, the state's fiscal condition remains dire. The bond issue and the spending limitations will help stanch the immediate bleeding and perhaps control budget growth in the future. But Schwarzenegger must still produce a balanced budget by Jan. 10 for the coming fiscal year. He begins at least $14 billion in the red, and the deficit could be substantially larger.

"I'd say there is no doubt you have an active, energized governor," said Phil Isenberg, a Sacramento lobbyist and budget expert who served 14 years in the state Assembly. "But it's also fair to say that the early stuff has been the easy stuff, because it's politically popular. He's cut taxes and strung out the payment of debt. Those are not bad accomplishments, but they hardly represent an earth-shaking reorganization of the state's fiscal affairs."

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