Jewish Journal

Sacramento Politics Take Strange Turn

by Jill Stewart

Posted on Dec. 25, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The radical outsiders in Sacramento are the moderates and pragmatists, a strange truth that was brought home dramatically this month, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature compromised on a ballot measure to refinance the state's huge debt and hem in future spending excesses by the Legislature.

The deal happened because free-thinkers, known simply as the Bipartisan Group, buttressed by the legislative Women's Caucus and a handful of moderate Democrats, refused to let the Democratic majority leaders, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, scotch the deal. It was a stunning role for moderates, a tiny band among 120 mostly hard-core partisans in the Legislature.

Complex bipartisan deals need to be cut in Sacramento over the next six months, from balancing the budget to fixing the workers' compensation crisis to ending massive fraud in the teetering unemployment insurance program. These troubles should have been fixed under former Gov. Gray Davis. Instead, they were piled on a mountain of gridlock.

Majority leaders Wesson and Burton have shown little interest in ending gridlock. Our elected Democratic state senators and Assembly members are under tremendous partisan pressure to do whatever these leaders order. The same holds true for the minority side, where Republican leaders Jim Brulte in the Senate and David Cox in the Assembly -- though less powerful -- expect to be obeyed.

However, ever since Schwarzenegger arrived, something has changed. The Bipartisan Group, which worked to balance the budget last year without finger pointing (and without their leaders), is gaining traction. Powerless until now, Schwarzenegger gave the group gravitas by taking its counsel.

Led by Assemblyman Keith Richman of Granada Hills, one of a growing number of Jewish Republicans in California politics, and Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Martinez, a former county supervisor, the Bipartisan Group refused to accept failure after Burton and Wesson on Dec. 5 pronounced Schwarzenegger's fiscal recovery plan dead.

Although a deadline set by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley for approving the plan for the March ballot had passed, Richman became convinced that there were enough legislative votes to forge a fiscal recovery compromise with Schwarzenegger -- if only Shelley could extend his deadline.

So 19 brave bipartisan souls ignored their leaders, signing a petition that convinced Shelley to give the Legislature more time.

After that, "we had a conference call with the governor, who was enthusiastic to keep up negotiations, and one of the Democrats in our group asked him if any issues were off the table," Richman said. "The governor said, 'No issues are off the table,' and it didn't surprise me. He wanted to find a solution, but the leadership walked away."

Why did the legislative leaders walk away? Sources tell me one big reason was because the Service Employees International Union told the Democratic leaders to keep Schwarzenegger's plan off the March ballot.

Why? Because unions don't want competition for their measure on the March ballot, which is also being peddled as a government cost-control law. It's actually a sly bid to get voters to reduce the two-thirds margin now required to raise taxes in the Legislature. The measure would require only a 55 percent legislative vote to raise our taxes.

Had a 55 percent law been in place in 2003, quite a few of the roughly 100 bills proposed to raise our taxes by $28 billion would have been approved.

There's always a multilevel chess game afoot in Sacramento. Richman, Canciamilla and others are thrilled that Schwarzenegger is willing to challenge that game.

"Last week was really the best demonstration of bipartisan compromise that I've seen in the three years I've been in the Legislature, and others who have been here far longer said the same thing," Richman said.

On Dec. 18, I saw another display of the power of pragmatism, when Schwarzenegger used his emergency powers to override the Legislature and replace funds the cities and counties lost when he reversed the tripling of the car tax.

At the governor's press conference, one of the gutsy new pragmatists in Sacramento, moderate Democratic Controller Steve Westly, stood up and strongly backed the governor. Democratic Mayors Jerry Brown of Oakland and James Hahn of Los Angeles offered big kudos. As mayors, Hahn and Brown are pragmatists, not partisans. If mayors play endless political games rather than fix things, they quickly get the blame.

Hahn, who seemed truly moved to be receiving funds from Schwarzenegger after the Legislature refused to act and left for the holidays, broke into a standing ovation. And Brown chortled, "The governor ... exercised executive power to the max."

The question now is whether clear-thinking pragmatists can build their modest core into a force that can work with Schwarzenegger to get the really big things done. That's a tall order in Sacramento, a place that thrives on gridlock, ideologues and the multilevel chess game.  

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.

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