Bush's new California connection

Ever since President Bush took office, California and the White House have been famously at odds.

From environmental regulation to energy companies' profits to medical marijuana, the conservative administration in Washington has rarely seen eye to eye with the liberal behemoth on the West Coast. Communication between Bush and soon-to-be ex-Gov. Gray Davis has been minimal.

Now, as Arnold Schwarzenegger prepares to seize the reins in Sacramento, a new and complex dynamic is taking hold. Bush and Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger, both Republicans, though from different wings of the party, will certainly take each other's phone calls. But it remains debatable just how much the president can or will do to help his new ally solve California's deep-seated fiscal problems, including an $8 billion deficit.

On Thursday, the two meet in Riverside, Calif., their first meeting since the actor's victory last week. The get-together may be little more than a photo op, but it highlights one of the president's more important political relationships of what may be a tough 2004 reelection battle.

"Bush wants to bask in Arnold's glow, and Arnold wants to pick the president's pocket," says a top Republican Senate aide in Washington.

For Bush, there's no doubt that Schwarzenegger's political ascent enhances the Republican Party's image as a "big tent" enterprise - willing to embrace, at least tacitly, the moderate wing of the GOP that supports abortion and gay rights. If Schwarzenegger is still politically popular a year from now, and California is "in play" as a presidential battleground, Bush could get a small but significant boost from the new governor.

For Schwarzenegger, analysts say, any dream of becoming the Collectinator - receiving large federal reimbursements for illegal immigrants, health care, or homeland security - is likely to go unfulfilled. On the stump, the actor promised he'd try to recover more than $50 billion from Washington, arguing that California pays more into the federal coffers than it receives in return. He vowed to seek Washington's help in slowing illegal immigration and in getting Washington to buy back offshore oil leases.

But even if Schwarzenegger's high-profile efforts don't bear major fruit, there are many subtler ways Washington can help California, such as waivers on federal mandates, like Medicaid, and on regulations.

There's little Washington can do to help California's bond rating - now just a notch above junk status, the lowest level of all 50 states - but it can aid in keeping military bases open and attracting federal programs that might go elsewhere.

The applause for Schwarzenegger had barely subsided last week when he announced he would ask Washington for "a lot of favors" - but not a federal bailout, aides later clarified. The Bush administration, grappling with its own massive budget deficit, asserts that Washington has already pitched in to help the struggling states, including $20 billion in aid that Congress passed in May as part of a jobs and growth package.

Aside from Washington's empty coffers, Bush's belief in federalism - the idea that states should exercise strong autonomy in handling their own affairs - adds ideological heft to his resistance to help further.

Still, the bottom line for governors and presidents, say California political observers, is that every little bit of goodwill helps. "It's much better to have a friend in the White House than an enemy," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University, Sacramento.

He notes that President Clinton helped secure an emergency loan for Los Angeles County when it was in a financial crisis. After the Northridge earthquake of 1994, Clinton fast-tracked relief money for California. In his last days in office in 2001, Clinton also ordered out-of-state natural gas suppliers to sell extra electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric so that California could avoid further blackouts.

The emergence of homeland security as a major funding item has only added to states' urgency. "If you look at a wish list, we definitely need more money for port security," says Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development council, noting that California has three major ports.

But looking at the array of wish lists from all the states, analysts doubt any special favors are in the works for California. "I don't see how Bush pulls something out for California without giving it to other states, too," says Steven Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. "What Schwarzenegger has asked for, [Bush's] brother has asked for and Texas has asked for, and they haven't gotten them."

The only way Mr. Levy sees Schwarzenegger being successful in asking for reimbursements is if he is "one more voice" that tips the scales.

And the idea that Bush could justify making an exception for California, in an effort to woo its 55 electoral votes during the presidential campaign, likely doesn't hold water, say political observers.

"In the short run, even if Schwarzenegger is successful, it seems unlikely he'd be able to change the [Democratic] orientation of the state in presidential politics," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. Plus, he adds, governors don't have the kind of political coattails that they used to.

But even if Schwarzenegger is likely to have a hard time swinging California to the GOP next November, it's a possibility the Democrats cannot ignore - a reality that will be costly.

Unlike four years ago, when Democratic nominee Al Gore was able to take California for granted as a safe Democratic state, the party's nominee won't have that luxury this time around.

"The reality of it is that it's the Democrats who need California," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "What this does for [Bush] is that it makes it impossible for Democrats to ignore this state."

She adds that Schwarzenegger can also help his party by campaigning for other governors.

Bush-California dividing lines

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Bush administration may have legal battles in their future, on everything from energy to air quality to medicinal use of marijuana:

Energy

California wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to order energy companies to refund $9 billion in electricity overcharges to ratepayers, saying utilities illegally manipulated the power market to profit from the state's power crisis. Governor-elect Schwarzenegger did not address the issue in his campaign.

Offshore drilling

California has repeatedly sued to protect its coastline from offshore drilling. This summer, the Bush administration proposed new rules that would get around a federal appellate decision upholding the state's ban on off-coast oil exploration. Schwarzenegger said he's opposed to offshore drilling and will urge the federal government to buy up offshore oil leases to get companies to drop drilling plans, as has been done in Florida.

Air quality

California is preparing to join as many as nine other states in suing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to preserve efforts to control greenhouse gases after an EPA decision that it lacks authority to regulate air pollution from cars. California officials said the decision suggests the federal government intends to block states from acting on their own, though a regional spokesman for the federal EPA denied that. Schwarzenegger's campaign said he wanted to ensure the state EPA works closely with the federal EPA.

Medical marijuana

Smoking marijuana is a federal crime, but in California voters approved a 1996 law allowing sick and dying people to use marijuana - the first of eight states with similar laws. The Drug Enforcement Administration has been raiding medical marijuana cooperatives operating in compliance with California law.

Schwarzenegger, who admitted using marijuana in the past, said he supports medical marijuana use, but his staff said he has taken no position on the federal raids.

- Associated Press

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