End of session tensions mark policy, political debates

A frantic and frenetic Capitol atmosphere gave way to an all-out war between the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in this final week of the legislative session.

Major deals remained elusive on major issues including water policy, renewable energy and changes in the state’s prison system, frustrating legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With lawmakers hungry for a legislative win, and the governor casting an eye toward his legacy, the typical end-of-session frenzy had devolved into a round of political chicken and sweeping threats.

For the second straight year, Schwarzenegger seemed ready to punish lawmakers for failing to reach resolution on major issues by threatening unilateral vetoes of bills that reach his desk.

For Schwarzenegger, the events of the week illustrate many of the frustrations that have marked his six years in office. Last month, some of Schwarzenegger’s top advisers huddled in Sacramento to discuss plans for the rest of the governor’s time in office, with an eye cast toward the Schwarzenegger legacy.

Schwarzenegger came into office with a long to-do list in 2003. But outside of an early win on workers compensation reform, and playing a key role in crafting an infrastructure bond package, many items on that list remain unchecked.

Perhaps his largest legislative achievement, the greenhouse gas emissions bill, was crafted largely by Democrats in the Legislature, with Schwarzenegger threatening to veto the measure up until the final moments before the bill reached his desk.

“The inability of the Legislature to compromise is very frustrating,” said Schwarzenegger adviser Adam Mendelsohn. “Every year, both sides retreat to their respective partisan corners and nothing gets done.”

Mendelsohn said Schwarzenegger still has a long list of proposals he’d like to push through, including changes to the state pension system and reforming the state’s budget process. The governor may yet bring ballot measures to the voters on those measures in 2010.

This year, the governor has called for sweeping changes to the state’s prison system, a multi-billion dollar fix to the state’s water problem, and a plan to ensure utilities receive one-third of their power from renewable energy sources by the year 2020.

And so, again, we see the veto threat from Schwarzenegger, trying to force a deal on those major issues in the closing days.

In his veto of Republican Paul Cook’s AB 264, Schwarzenegger wrote, “Our state if facing significant challenges, including the need for comprehensive changes in our policies on water, energy and corrections and the need to take meaningful steps to stimulate the economy and rein in the rising levels of unemployment. This bill does not address any of these issues.”

The message was similar to a blanket veto message Schwarzenegger attached to 136 bills last year, citing the prolonged budget stand-off as a reason for the blanket veto. The move angered many lawmakers of both parties, as did his veto of Cook’s bill on Tuesday.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, called the governor’s veto “another ill-conceived, and indiscriminately issued ransom note … You are not an emperor and you are not a king. We are dealing with very important issues and your threats do nothing to enhance the process.”

But Schwarzenegger isn’t the only one looking for a legacy. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass is entering her final year in office, and is looking back on a speakership that has been torpedoed by the state’s fiscal crisis. Bass assumed the speaker’s gavel as an outspoken advocate for foster children, and had hoped to push through a 2010 ballot initiative. But the budget crisis put those plans on hold.

“I think we can feel good about preventing the state from going over a cliff, but we also want to make progress on major policies,” Bass said. “It’s demoralizing if your entire time is spent on dealing with crisis.”

Bass said she has been working on the renewable energy and water plans for more than a year, and remained optimistic about their passage this week. She has also been a strong advocate for a sentencing commission to review the state’s prison sentences, but has run into resistance from many of her own members, who fear political retribution for supporting such a commission.

The story is similar on the Senate side. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, took over as leader of his house last year with a number of ambitious goals, despite the looming budget crisis. He had hoped to expand health care coverage for kids, reform the state’s education system and reach consensus on a water overhaul proposal.

When he first took over as Senate leader, Steinberg hoped to earn some early policy victories to boost bipartisan momentum.

“A water bond is teed up,” he said in November of 2008. “There have been two years of negotiations and the differences have been narrowed to a very small range of issues. Why can’t we finalize that in the first 120 days? We won’t put it on the ballot until 2010, but why can’t we get the work done?”

“On renewable energy,” he continued. “The governor signed an executive order a couple of days ago committing to the 33 percent renewable standard. You’ve got leaders in both houses who have carried legislation on that subject matter. Let’s get it done in the first 90-120 days.”
Yet fights over water and renewable energy are among the complex policy initiatives wrapped in the end-of-session morass.
Meanwhile, Healthy Families, the program that insures the state’s poorest children, has been cut back, the education changes have not materialized, and the water deal, as of this writing, remains elusive. In fact, the Steinberg-led conference committee on water was dismissed by Republican leaders as a “dog and pony show” earlier this week, and the parties seemed as far apart as ever over how to fix and fund the state’s water system.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: