Will new Capitol dynamics fix the legislative system?

Four years ago, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson held a party for himself to say goodbye to the Capitol Press Corps. During the gathering, the newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped by to throw his arm around Wesson and wish him well.
It was impressive. After five years of Gov. Gray Davis’ impersonal style – and his declaration that the Legislature existed only to implement his will – it seemed a new era of personal politics was upon us in Sacramento.

A strong personal bond between the new Republican governor and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, led to deals to repeal the car tax, rescind a measure that gave drivers licenses to undocumented residents, place deficit bonds and budget reform on the ballot, and reform the worker’s compensation insurance system.

But four years later, the personal bonds between the governor and the Legislature have deteriorated. Not a single new member of the Assembly Republican caucus has received a congratulatory phone call from the governor (though all new electeds did receive a gift of a small replica of the Capitol with the governor’s signature). Last year, when the governor went to meet with the Assembly Republican Caucus, the members wore name tags to underscore the fact that they had no personal contact with the governor.

After numerous conversations with senior legislative and administration sources it’s clear that the philosophical divide between lawmakers is not the only problem. The lack of personal relationships, a broken political negotiation structure, the fluidity brought on by term limits and highly gerrymandered districts have all added to the continuing devolution of governance in the legislative and executive branches.

This new legislative year has altered slightly some of those dynamics. There is a new leader in the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, someone with whom Schwarzenegger already has a working relationship. There are a crop of new legislators, including 51 Democrats in the Assembly, meaning that fewer Republicans would be needed to vote for a tax increase. And there is the growing sense that the economic realities facing the state and the nation are dire, and that some quick action is needed, even if that means unpopular cuts and tax increases.  

But the obstacles to be overcome are daunting. The governor and his aides say they are consistently frustrated by the lack of leadership in the legislative caucuses. There is no sense that the leaders speak for their caucuses or are able to deliver votes for any plan that is hashed out in the Big Five process. They are frustrated with Democrats who want the governor to govern as a Democrat – embracing their positions on issues like the environment, health care and increasing the minimum wage – but still expect him to be able to deliver Republican votes.

There has also been a deterioration in the personal relationships among the legislative leaders. Much of that, sources on all sides say, has to do with timing. Schwarzenegger and Burton had an immediate bond. And over time, the governor developed a strong relationship with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Nunez and the governor collaborated on major policy initiatives, including AB 32, which has become the centerpiece of Schwarzenegger’s legislative legacy, and comprehensive health care reform package, which died in the state Senate back in January.

With Burton and Nunez gone, along with former Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine, the relationships among the leaders have had to be rebuilt. Over time, Villines and Schwarzenegger have developed a more comfortable working relationship. But the governor’s office continually saw Perata as an obstacle. They blame Perata for the failure to put a water bond on the ballot, and for the death of the health care plan. There was never the trust, let alone the personal connection, between Perata and the governor that existed with Burton.

Some of this is just an unintended consequence of term limits. This experience has changed the governor’s position on term limits, even bringing him to back a tweak to the law proposed by Nunez that was rejected by voters in March.

But other lawmakers gripe that Schwarzenegger is too busy playing on the national stage – whether it’s organizing global environmental summits, or appearing on national Sunday talk shows – and has lost the taste for the attention to detail that effective governance requires.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, said he has a good relationship with the governor. But he said it might be beneficial if the governor did more to reach out to individual lawmakers.
“I really do think there could be more personal involvement from the governor,” Villines said. “It would be helpful.”
Villines, who once worked for Gov. Pete Wilson, recalled Wilson was diligent about sending personal notes to legislators, inviting small groups over to his house for dinner, and remembering birthdays. “Those are the small things that in any business are just good practice,” Villines said. “But more than that, the governor is a people guy. I think he’d like it.”

The irony is that many of the same Republicans who quietly gripe about the lack of personal touch from the governor say his staff is always very attentive when it comes to business. Whenever the governor is holding a press conference in a member’s district, or on an issue in which an individual lawmaker has shown a particular interest, his office is sure to extend an invitation to the member. But they say a little personal touch could go a long way.

For Schwarzenegger, it is a double-edged sword, say aides. If he focuses too much on cultivating individual members, he is accused to trying to work around the legislative leadership. While Schwarzenegger has spoken out against the Big Five structure in the past, he now has grow to respect, and try to work within it. But other legislative leaders see the Big Five process as part of the problem. They describe the Big Five sessions as essentially free of any real negotiation. There is concern that none of the legislative leaders in the room are able to deliver on the promises they make in the room, and that in many cases, there is no clear list of priorities or demands made during the discussions.

But amid the pessimism, there are optimistic signs. All leaders say a deal is inevitable, if not imminent, and there seems to be a growing consensus that it will involve a painful combination of new revenues and spending cuts. But it remains to be seen that if and when we get to this precarious point again, any of the new Capitol dynamics ease the passage of some of the pain to come.

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