A job that demands more than one take
In his first 100 hours, Arnold Schwarzenegger moves quickly, but fixing the budget proves problematic.
OAKLAND, CALIF. — More than disgruntled lawmakers or demanding voters, the greatest enemy of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's young administration is time.
From the moment he took office, Governor Schwarzenegger laid out an ambitious agenda. He took three of the most contentious issues from the last session - driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, workers' compensation reform, and the budget crisis - and called legislators into special session three times before the Thanksgiving turkeys started roasting.
Now, Schwarzenegger's team finds itself straining to keep pace with its own enormous demands. Particularly on the budget, the administration was at first slow to provide details on plans and has since proposed cuts widely criticized by the Democratic Legislature. During the governor's first two weeks, the halls of Sacramento have been less an Autobahn of bills than a series of speed bumps.
It's hardly the start Schwarzenegger might have hoped for. Yet, experts say, it's a political risk the governor must take. The transition was never going to be easy, given Schwarzenegger's inexperience, the shorter-than-usual transition after the recall, and the fact the California is in the midst of a crisis. The comprehensiveness of his October victory, however, demands that he act now.
"Schwarzenegger would be a fool not to take advantage of the momentum the recall gave him," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University, Sacramento. "If he succeeds with two-thirds of what he wants to do, people will see it as a great success."
He has already had some success. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, promised to work to repeal the recently signed law that allowed illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, and the Senate did so this week. The budget, though, has proven more problematic - and more pressing. Indeed, the Legislature has only one week to consider the centerpiece of Schwarzenegger's budget plan, and some lawmakers say the debate hasn't yet begun in earnest.
The contention focuses on a $15 billion bond, which would cover most of California's current debt without tax hikes or deep cuts. But the Byzantine checks and balances of California law demand that voters must approve the bond. Unfortunately, the deadline for anything to appear on the March ballot is Dec. 5. If legislators miss that deadline, the vote will come too late, and Sacramento won't be able to include the bond in summer budget talks.
The problem is, many Democratic lawmakers present at various budget hearings say there's nothing to act on. They say they haven't been given any specifics on how long the payment period will be. How the bond will be paid back. Or even why the administration settled on $15 billion.
"There was maybe a bit of loss of respect," says state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D). "We expected more [details]."
That is almost inevitable during such a contentious and abbreviated process, analysts say, and no reason for turning back. "You can't rush something though the Legislature without ruffling feathers," says Dr. Hodson. "You only have to worry if the caucus of the offended gets bigger."
So far, that does not seem to be the case. Senator Kuehl, like many of her colleagues, has so far hedged her criticism with an acknowledgment of the enormous task before the new administration. Others have gone further, suggesting that the need to move quickly outweighs any rough patches along the way. "He's attaching a sense of urgency to this issue, and I think that's a good idea - there is great merit in going into special session," says state Sen. Jackie Speier (D). "The governor made
promises during the recall and wants to keep them, and I respect that. As long as we have details, accommodating his speed should be possible."
Gradually, they have begun to emerge. Though many specifics on the bond issue have yet to be fleshed out, "My impression is that we were starting to get them" this week, says Democratic Assemblyman John Dutra.
That, however, will probably just be the beginning. When Schwarzenegger's finance chief announced a plan to cut $2 billion from the current budget this week, many Democratic lawmakers dismissed it out of hand. Targeting everything from highway projects to camps for the disabled, it made no provision for raising taxes - a step many Democrats see as necessary to any budget solution. "In the end, we're going to find our way out of this through cuts, revenues [such as taxes], some borrowing, and fiscal restructuring," says Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg.
Still, Schwarzenegger is forcing the Legislature to confront the problem now, and some say that is a vital exercise in itself - no matter what the outcome. "We wanted action early on so that we didn't end up doing what we did last year, making decisions in the dead of night [past the budget deadline]," says Assemblyman Rick Keene (R). "The first question is, How much scaling back of government do we have to do?"