Governor’s appointees caught in political crossfire

Dozens of political appointees tapped by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are stuck in limbo, and some may become casualties of a turf war between the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger as the end of the legislative year approaches.

Many Schwarzenegger appointees must be confirmed by the state Senate. But they first receive approval from the five-member Senate Rules Committee before receiving a vote on the Senate floor. The committee is run by Democrats, and chaired by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

This week, the Senate panel met for the first time since July. The panel recommended that one gubernatorial appointee, Air Resources Board member Ken Yeager, be approved by the full Senate. But two other appointees – former Assemblyman Bob Pacheco to the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board and Child Support Service Director Jan Sturla – were held over for a future hearing.

Forty-four appointees must be confirmed by Jan. 5.

Publicly, spokesmen for both Steinberg and Schwarzenegger say there is nothing abnormal going on.

“We have appointed a number of well qualified individuals and look forward to the Senate confirming them,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

Steinberg spokesman Jim Evans said, “The Pro Tem and Rules Committee is committed to giving all the Governor’s appointees fair and thorough examination.”

But privately, sources in both offices acknowledge the political appointees have been caught in a political crossfire that started when Schwarzenegger unilaterally eliminated more than $400 million from the state budget, altering the deal agreed to during negotiations with Steinberg and other legislative leaders.

Steinberg is suing Schwarzenegger over the line-item vetoes in San Francisco superior court, arguing that the governor overstepped his constitutional authority by making those spending reductions to child welfare, health insurance for poor children, domestic violence shelters and other programs close to Democrats’ hearts.

“”The governor has overstepped his authority,” reads the complaint filed by Steinberg last month. “Virtually all of the reductions made by the governor are to funding for the most vulnerable members of our society: the poor, the young and the very old…(The governor’s cuts) will directly and disastrously affect the lives of the poorest among us.”

Regardless of how the constitutional question is resolved, Democrats say the line-item vetoes damaged the trust built between the governor and Democratic leaders during the marathon budget discussions. And while nobody in Steinberg’s office will say so publicly, there is widespread acknowledgement among Senate staffers that some of Schwarzenegger’s appointees are being held hostage as the end of the legislative year approaches.

According to several Democratic staffers, the subject of the governor’s appointments came up in a recent meeting of Senate Democratic chiefs of staff. According to those in the meeting, Steinberg’s staff briefed the chiefs on the appointments situation and warned, “there will be blood,” implying some of Schwarzenegger’s appointees would not be confirmed.

According to a list obtained from the Senate Rules Committee, there are 59 appointees who need to be confirmed by the full Senate before the end of the first week of January 2010. Fifteen of those appointees have been approved by Senate Rules, but have not yet received a formal confirmation on the Senate floor. Appointees may serve in their posts for up to one year without Senate confirmation. If the Senate has not confirmed an appointee in that time, that person must immediately resign his or her post.

Senate sources also say they are holding appointees as leverage for the haggling that goes on at the end of any legislative session. Lawmakers were burned last year when Schwarzenegger vetoed 35 percent of all of the legislation that hit his desk – many of them with a form-letter indicating that last year’s prolonged budget stand-off did not give the governor’s office time to properly analyze the legislation.

Democrats are hoping Schwarzenegger will be less likely to paint with such a wide veto brush if he potentially has something to lose by doing so.

Since the Legislature is expected to return for some form of special session after the Sept. 11  deadline for the regular legislative year, these sources confirm the Senate Rules Committee is in no rush to shuttle these appointments through.

They note that if and when the Legislature returns for special session, the Rules Committee may convene and hold hearings on legislative appointees.

Among those awaiting confirmation are former lawmakers including Pacheco and Jerome Horton, who was tapped by Schwarzenegger to fill a vacancy on the Board of Equalization. Also in need of confirmation are former Sen. Carole Migden, who sits on the soon-to-be-abolished Integrated Waste Management Board, and former GOP Assemblymembers Bonnie Garcia and George Plescia, who both sit on the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.

There are also appointments that are more personal for Schwarzenegger. Among them is the scheduled confirmation of Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, wife of Bobby Shriver and sister-in-law to First Lady Maria Shriver.

While Senate sources say it is likely some appointees may not be confirmed by the Senate, there was no speculation about which appointees may be lost in the political carnage.

Meanwhile, consumer groups are mounting a full-court press to kill the reconfirmation of Public Utilities Commission member Rachelle Chong. Chong has been in the crosshairs of liberals in the past.

Consumer groups allege she slipped last-minute language into a complex, 282-page proposal dealing with telephone-company deregulation. That language was later interpreted by AT&T as a green light to alter some of its marketing practices. Those practices had come under scrutiny five years earlier when the company–then Pacbell–faced a $40 million-plus fine and had been sanctioned by the PUC for abuse-marketing conduct. The sanctions, still in effect, were aimed at halting practices that included targeting customers who inquire about routine service or billing issues with full-blown marketing pitches.

These allegations almost torpedoed her first confirmation hearing in 2006, when she was first tapped by Schwarzenegger to fill his current chief of staff Susan Kennedy’s seat on the PUC.

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