Schwarzenegger's tough to-do list

His bipartisan team has drawn praise, but the test of his celebrity leverage will come in Sacramento, on the car tax and other issues.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When President Bush lands in California this week to scout out the state's giant lab experiment in voter reform, he'll find gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger receiving high marks for slipping on his smock quickly.

In short order, and well before he formally takes office next month, Mr. Schwarzenegger has tapped a respected veteran budget director to carry out his promised audit of the state's crippled finances. He's also announced a broadly bipartisan, 68-member team of transition advisers that's winning kudos for its breadth of ideology and expertise.

Yet the honeymoon could be shortlived, with state budgeting starting as soon as January. Key platform promises from candidate Schwarzenegger's 10-point, 100-day plan are being singled out as litmus tests for the contentious budget process and other longterm challenges. They are his pledges to repeal a tripling of the state car tax and a law granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and to renegotiate state-employee contracts. Analysts say Schwarzenegger's follow-through on these issues - or lack of it - will give the first big look at whether he can do what he pledged, how much political capital he will have to expend, and what his governing style is likely to be.

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They may also reflect whether he can reinvent a new Republican model of fiscal and social moderation in a state where many voters want both, but where no other top state office is in the GOP column.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is forming a new Republican Party in this state where most Californians agree with him on social and fiscal issues," says Robert Stern, president of the Center For Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan research organization that studies elections, democracy, and campaign financing. "His liberal social views would never have gotten him nominated in a Republican primary, but now his win is reshaping the face of the party."

Three issues and fame's megaphone ...

Although Schwarzenegger was criticized heavily during the campaign for his lack of specificity, he made it clear that on at least three issues, there was little room for interpretation. All three ran to the heart of voter anger. The ousted Governor Davis put thousands of new jobs on government payrolls during his five years in office - adding to the deficit that helped spark public outcry. Then, pinned to the wall by voters' fury, he tried to bail himself out, tripling the car tax to patch budget holes and granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants - in part, some suggested, to attract the Latino vote.

Hollywood's former "Terminator" said he would stop all that.

"All through the campaign, [Schwarzenegger] presented himself as the reformer who would stand for what all the people wanted," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "These three issues will begin to show how a popular candidate like Arnold will begin to make decisions that by their very nature will antagonize some segment of voters and thus challenge his notion of serving everyone equally."

On all three issues, Schwarzenegger's leverage - especially during a honeymoon period - will be higher than expected, analysts say. Some of that comes with the breadth of last week's recall. He got half the votes of the entire slate of 135 candidates, more than Governor Davis got in 2002. He also got 30 percent of the Latino vote and 45 percent of women's votes.

"His surprisingly strong victory now gives him leverage in Sacramento in working with both Democrats and Republicans," says Allan Hoffenblum, a political consultant.

Other factors, including a media frenzy, play into Schwarzenegger's hands. Local TV stations that used to report little of state government are now sending full-time camera crews to Sacramento. And Schwarzenegger's celebrity ensures a larger megaphone from the governor's bully pulpit - even as legislators jostle for reelection next year. "It won't be easy for legislators to be obstructionist to legislation like they have in the past," says Mr. Hoffenbloom. "They are too much in the spotlight for business as usual."

... but will the star power be enough?

With all this as backdrop, Schwarzenegger says he plans to take his pledges on the car tax and the driver's-license law directly to legislators in a special session the day he takes office. If they fail to act, he says, he'll take the issues to voters in referenda.

"The fact that he has said he will go around legislators directly to the people gives him a great amount of clout," says Garrett. "It takes more time, but it's a useful threat and fulfills his promise of governing for the people."

But Democrat Senate leader John Burton has questioned whether the vehicle-license fee can be constitutionally repealed. Experts say canceling the fee will set the state back $4 billion on top of California's current $8 billion deficit. And that money is crucial to local governments in funding fire and police crews - so cutbacks could cause swift outcries. Schwarzenegger says he has the authority to repeal the fee; Burton has responded that if Schwarzenegger can "come up with a way to eliminate the fee and keep other programs in place," he won't have a problem with it.

On the repealing of drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, Democratic legislators say compromises can be reached; Schwarzenegger's biggest objections have to do with security problems.

Of the three key issues, analysts say renegotiating state-employee contracts will be most difficult. There are hundreds of thousands of state employees - a powerful unionized group. Cutbacks' savings can be enormous, but the political fallout could be devastating. "State employees will view this as making them the fiscal scapegoat for the budget crisis, trying to tax their earnings to bring the state back in balance when they don't feel it was their fault," says Harley Shaiken, an expert in labor relations at the University of California, Berkeley. Because of this, says Mr. Shaiken, Schwarzenegger's handling of the issue will be the "preview of coming attractions" for his administration.

"The question people will be asking is how broad based will he be in negotiating these contracts," he says. "We have seen promising symbolism with the diversity of his transition team after a very bitter campaign. But what lends itself well to election rhetoric and to the union negotiating table are fundamentally different. This could be the hallmark of his administration."

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