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Schwarzenegger Proves His Prowess, but Much Tougher Challenges Remain

People have stopped asking, “How’s Arnold doing?” They already know.

Republicans gush uncontrollably. Most Democrats smile in quiet admiration; some even join the chorus.

“He’s exercising executive power to the max. That’s the only way to get anything done around here,” proclaimed former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, the Oakland mayor.

Brown stood with a horde of local pols and sheriffs behind Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week as the governor announced that he was bypassing the Legislature and sending $2.7 billion to cities and counties to cover their lost car tax revenue.

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It turned out to be a terrific first month for Schwarzenegger: He canceled recalled Gov. Gray Davis’ car tax hike. He signed promised legislation repealing the right of illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. He negotiated a tricky budget-balancing requirement and deficit-bond package with Democrats.

Voters thought it would be fun -- possibly even productive -- to elect a “Terminator"-governor. So far, he has played the role they imagined. There has been “action, action, action, action,” as he promised.

Unlike most politicians, the new governor also has not been afraid to admit mistakes. After statewide protests and personal soul-searching, he withdrew proposed cutbacks in services for people with developmental disabilities. “We made a wiser judgment,” he told reporters.

And, yes, much of the news coverage has been fawning.

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But before everybody gets too giddy, they should remember some things:

* That budget-balancing measure the lawmakers passed was not Schwarzenegger’s “spending cap.” He did not muscle his plan through the Legislature, as has been portrayed. He ripped it up and accepted a Democratic alternative. That makes him pragmatic and productive, but hardly all-powerful.

* By rolling back the car tax, Schwarzenegger has dug a deeper deficit hole. This assures more painful cuts in state services -- health care, road construction -- and hastens the day when he’s forced to raise other taxes.

* He did act boldly, if perhaps illegally, in bypassing the Legislature and mailing money to local governments. (Friendly Democratic Controller Steve Westly agreed to cut the checks.) But ultimately, he’ll need to deal with lawmakers on this because only they can appropriate money. This story has not ended.

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“The Constitution is very clear,” says former Senate consultant Fred Silva, a senior advisor for the Public Policy Institute of California. “The Legislature is responsible for appropriating funds. The governor is responsible for carrying out the budget act. At some point, the controller is going to need a valid appropriation for the expenditure.”

* The notion that Schwarzenegger can govern as some strongman without legislative cooperation is naive fantasy. The Founders didn’t set it up that way.

“I’m enthralled with what I’ve seen. I think he’s been magnificent, a breath of fresh air in this town” says one of the giddy gushers, attorney Steve Merksamer, who manages a big lobby-law firm in Sacramento. But Merksamer, who was chief of staff for former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, cautions:

“A governor cannot operate unilaterally. A governor can exercise his full authority, which is considerable. But he can’t govern by fiat. In the end, he needs a bipartisan consensus.”

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Besides power over the purse, the Legislature has the final word on most major gubernatorial appointments. They must be confirmed by the Senate.

Then there’s Civics 1a: It’s lawmakers who make laws.

Schwarzenegger has hired -- with special interest money -- a political team to push ballot initiatives and make his own laws, like workers’ comp reform.

“I worry about that,” Merksamer says. “Historically, governors have had difficulty going to the ballot.”

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Gov. Pete Wilson failed with a welfare reform initiative. Deukmejian struck out with a redistricting proposal. Gov. Ronald Reagan bombed with his spending limit scheme.

Schwarzenegger may be superior, but he can’t ask voters to settle every Capitol fight. He’d wear out his welcome and special interests would grow wary of writing checks.

He can rally citizens to help him cajole and coerce the Legislature.

“He hasn’t marginalized the Legislature,” Merksamer says. “He has begun the process of marginalizing the far right and the far left and is attempting to govern from the broad center. That’s how every successful governor has governed.”

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From the broad center, every successful governor has raised taxes when necessary to make ends meet. It’s a myth that this is a high tax state. California ranked 18th nationally in state and local taxes in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nobody, incidentally, seems to have found the “billions in waste” Schwarzenegger promised to uncover in a so-called audit -- unless the governor is counting those poor children he wants to place on a waiting list for health care.

“Waste” is an ongoing project, we’re told. So is Schwarzenegger.

He has been going great. But this has been easy. The hard stuff comes next year.

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