Behind the scenes: The fight over freeway advertising

For the second straight year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used his line-item veto authority to slash hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget. And this year, like last, Democrats lashed out at Schwarzenegger for being cold-hearted and vitriolic in the use of his budget blue pencil.

What is less clear is how and why Schwarzenegger eliminated so much money from the budget in the latest round of cuts. The funds included money for children’s welfare services, child care and mental health programs.

On the record, Schwarzenegger’s office says the additional reductions were necessary to ensure the state had a prudent budget reserve – an explanation that was dismissed this week by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Steinberg stopped short of saying Schwarzenegger betrayed the leaders’ closed-door handshake agreement on the budget cuts.

But there was grumbling in the Capitol that Schwarzenegger deliberately cut deeply into the spending plan because there were items unrelated to the budget that Schwarzenegger wanted approved – and lawmakers failed to pass them.

The items on that wish list included allowing a major media company, ClearChannel, to use freeway signs for advertising. The signs, familiar to motorists,  currently carry alerts about missing children, fleeing felons and safety information for drivers, among other information.

That punitive-cuts explanation certainly applied last year.

In the closing hours of last year’s budget deal, the Assembly failed to pass two key budget proposals – one was a swap of highway tax reveues and the other would have allowed some limited slant oil drilling off the central coast. When those measures died in the Assembly, Schwarzenegger said he had to make up the lost budget revenue by using his line-item veto authority.

Assembly Democrats immediately complained that Schwarzenegger’s blue pencil was wielded with political payback in mind – specifically targeting programs championed by the Assembly speaker at the time, Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles.

This year, there were no major budget cost-saving measures that died in the Legislature.

But the state Senate did fail to pass an omnibus transportation bill that included items championed by the administration. At various points during the budget talks, Schwarzenegger pushed hard to allow for advertising on electronic freeway billboards operated by CalTrans.

The proposal was backed by ClearChannel, whose lobbyist, Darius Anderson, is a confidant of Schwarzenegger chief of staff Susan Kennedy.

The idea met with stiff opposition from Democratic senators, including Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I hated it. I hated it when it came before the subcommittee. I hated it as a (budget committee) conferee, and they kept bringing it back,” Lowenthal said. “CHP had the same concerns that I had about using ‘Amber Alert’ signs for advertising.”

Schwarzenegger also wanted language in the budget that would have resolved conflict-of interest issues that would allow Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and former Assemblyman Richard Katz to continue to serve on the state’s high-speed rail authority board.

Both of those ideas received push-back from Democrats in the state Senate. Ultimately, the Senate and the administration reached a compromise on the electronic billboard language and placed it into the transportation trailer bill. But the trailer bill died when Sen. Gil Cedillo demanded that the bill be amended to stop DUI checkpoints that he felt were aimed at illegal immigrants.

The transportation bill was amended to gain Cedillo’s support on other key pieces of the budget package. Cedillo’s support was critical because two Democrats were absent due to illness – Sens. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, and Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa. A third senator, Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, had to leave early because he was being arraigned on charges of voter fraud in a Los Angeles courtroom Friday morning.

In the end, the Assembly passed a transportation bill without the DUI checkpoint language and adjourned, leaving the Senate unable to amend any legislation.
Confused? Welcome to the politics of the California budget.

Among the items vetoed by Schwarzenegger: $256 million for child-care subsidies for working parents; $132 million in mental health services for children and $80 million for child welfare services.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said there was no connection between the failure of the transportation bill and the governor’s line-item vetoes. “These vetoes were very tough but necessary in order to create a responsible reserve to respond to emergencies,” he said.

Steinberg lashed out at Schwarzenegger in a press conference Wednesday, dismissing his governorship as a failed “experiment.” Steinberg said he was eagerly counting down the days until the state has a new governor and promised to make restoring those cuts a top priority next year.

Steinberg called the vetoes “misguided, cruel, unnecessary and preventable.”

Steinberg said he expected Schwarzenegger would make some cuts by wielding his line-item veto authority. He said Schwarzenegger asked Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, for a list of services at the top of their priority list to avoid Schwarzenegger’s unilateral budget axe.

“We presented the governor a list of items,” said Steinberg. “But the governor did not make any iron-clad deal” on what he would cut and what he would not.

Still, Steinberg said the cuts were about $500 million deeper than he expected. And he said Schwarzenegger seemed to lash out at children with his vetoes.

Pérez also blasted the governor in a statement Wednesday. “As I first stated soon after learning of the Governor’s devastating and shortsighted vetoes, it is disappointing but not surprising that the Governor would do so much damage on one of his final acts in office,” he said.

“But we will not let his child care veto go unanswered; we will fight to keep the 60,000 parents in their jobs and their kids in safe and enriching environments. Both are critical to economic interests of our state.”

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