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The Going Gets Tough for Schwarzenegger

Times Staff Writers

As he faces the first major test of his clout in the state capital, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has run up against a dual threat: a deeply divided Legislature smarting from his hardball tactics and the determined opposition of organized labor.

On his first day as governor, Schwarzenegger asked the Legislature to set aside partisan rancor and vote by today, the legal deadline, to place two budget measures on the March ballot.

One, fiercely opposed by many Democrats, would put a permanent cap on state spending. The other, facing resistance from conservative Republicans, would let the state borrow up to $15 billion to pay its bills.

Both measures would help Schwarzenegger keep his vow not to raise taxes, a campaign promise that is crucial to maintaining his political base.

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Balking legislators from Republican and Democratic camps have criticized the Schwarzenegger proposals on policy grounds. But Democrats in particular have also come under strong political pressure from political benefactors, led by the California Teachers Assn. and the Service Employees International Union. Both are among the capital’s most powerful lobbying forces, and both are leaning hard on lawmakers to radically reshape the proposals to their liking -- if not to block them altogether.

The teachers union worries that Schwarzenegger’s proposed spending cap would force sharp cuts to schools despite his pledge to protect education. The union also expects that his $15-billion debt proposal would make it harder to win voter approval of $12 billion in school bonds on the same March ballot.

SEIU, which represents more than 500,000 janitors, nurses, public employees and other workers, is concerned that Schwarzenegger’s proposals would sharply scale back spending on health care and other programs for decades.

“You have to ask: What are the actual consequences of this for the future of the state here?” said Dean Tipps, executive director of SEIU’s California State Council. “And does this come back and haunt everybody?”

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Schwarzenegger, Tipps said, is “naive” to think he can avoid raising taxes, given the depth of the state’s budget shortfall.

“His problem is that in his campaign, he promised what cannot be done, and now he’s confronting the reality of what cannot be done,” Tipps said. “There is a basic underlying arithmetic that he is now becoming increasingly aware of that says: That is not doable.”

Unions have had a testy relationship with Schwarzenegger since he leaped into politics: They spent millions of dollars trying to block Schwarzenegger from toppling his Democratic predecessor Gray Davis in the recall election.

With Democrats pressured from one side by labor and from the other by Schwarzenegger, the governor has complicated his task by using aggressive campaign tactics to pressure the Legislature.

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On the conservative talk radio circuit, he warned lawmakers of “severe casualties” next year in their campaigns if they fail to stop “politics as usual.” His political team has lured several thousand people to campaign-style rallies with a tape-recorded telephone invitation from Schwarzenegger. His advisors acknowledged picking the rally sites in San Diego and the Central Valley to target districts of moderate Democrats. Several are vulnerable to GOP challenges in the upcoming campaign.

“That was a mistake,” said Tony Quinn, a Republican who analyzes campaigns for the nonpartisan California Target Book. “That is a big club you keep behind the door. You should keep that kind of thing in reserve. What if it doesn’t work, and you’ve used it? Then its effectiveness is gone.”

Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles, the incoming state Assembly speaker, said he hoped Schwarzenegger was not trying to “bully” lawmakers.

“His earnest effort to find a serious solution to a very, very difficult problem -- that needs to happen here in Sacramento, not in our respective districts,” Nunez said.

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To calm the nerves of legislators, Schwarzenegger has toned down his rhetoric and invited both Democrats and Republicans to join him at the rallies. Lawmakers from both parties have taken him up on the offer, lending credence to his pledge to be a bipartisan governor. Among those on stage with him before nearly 2,000 cheering supporters Thursday at a Bakersfield shopping mall were two Democrats, state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter and Assemblywoman Nicole Parra of Hanford. They flew with Schwarzenegger from Sacramento to Bakersfield.

“If the governor wants action, we’re ready to give him action,” said Florez, who pledged support for his ballot proposals. “We should not battle with the governor now.”

The rally offered evidence of the opposition to Schwarzenegger’s proposals: About 150 protesters chanted, “Save our kids!” SEIU members held signs saying, “Arnold cuts hurt our children” and “Bakersfield against borrowing.” The union is a leading opponent of $1.9 billion in spending cuts he has proposed.

For Schwarzenegger, the stakes of the Legislature’s decisions are huge. He has essentially bet a large chunk of the political capital he gained in the October recall election.

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So far, his achievements as governor have been easy. With the stroke of a pen, he cut the fees that Californians pay to register their cars.

With another stroke of a pen, he ratified the Legislature’s repeal of a law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. The profound budget problems, however, have defied such simple solutions.

If lawmakers follow his wishes, the new Republican governor would claim victory in his initial efforts to cut through the partisan gridlock that has angered California voters. Enhancing the unique power he wields as a top Hollywood film star would be the first firm evidence of skill at cutting deals with legislators.

“That’s a fairly potent combination,” said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.

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But if lawmakers defy Schwarzenegger, the governor will suffer an embarrassing defeat less than a month after taking power.

Until now, many Democrats have tried to be conciliatory toward Schwarzenegger as they struggle to avoid the voter wrath that put him in office. But if he fails to win legislative approval of his ballot measures, Democrats could be emboldened to “stop the Schwarzenegger juggernaut,” said Democratic pollster David Binder.

“It would take some of the larger-than-life position that he has, and bring it back down to reality,” he said.

Either way, the outcome of his talks with legislators will offer the first true measure of Schwarzenegger’s ability to translate his personal popularity into effective leadership.

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