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Not Yet a Multi-Tasker, Schwarzenegger Tackles One Problem at a Time

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps getting on-the-job training -- lessons on what works and what falls flat in Sacramento. What’s workable politics and what’s only civics book theory.

Turns out, the governor knew a lot before he even got here and learns fast. But he still hasn’t absorbed all the new lessons.

“Every day is an education for me,” Schwarzenegger told reporters after the Legislature passed his workers’ comp bill Friday. “I’m sure I have made mistakes during these negotiations. And maybe because of that, it took longer, I don’t know.

“But in the end, if I can fix the budget ... fix the energy problem ... some of the environmental problems ... get better transportation ... I’m a happy camper.”

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Notice how Schwarzenegger seemed to be listing priorities: budget, energy....

The governor learned from watching his predecessor, Gray Davis, not to let an energy problem boil into a crisis. Electricity supplies again are drawing thin.

So Schwarzenegger soon will unveil his own energy plan to encourage private development of power plants and allow big electricity users to cut their own deals for power. He’ll also try to shake up the state’s energy bureaucracy, while working more closely than Davis did with the Public Utilities Commission.

Aside from comp, says spokesman Rob Stutzman, the governor “has spent more time on energy than anything else.”

But Schwarzenegger says he has learned from past experience that it’s best to focus laser-like on one problem at a time.

“People have a difficult time paying attention to several things on the front burner,” he recently told me. “The focus has to be on one specific thing. Dig in and go after that until it is done. This is how I always do everything in life. It is like a funnel, all the energy goes to this one thing.

“Everyone gets the signal in the building here that this is important to you. You set a deadline, even though the deadline maybe sounds ridiculous to most.... It rattles everyone’s cage and then they all start working.... People should know when you’re out there that this is so important it’s all that matters right now.”

Then he punctuated the point with a tale from film town, the kind that charms the Capitol:

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“The worst thing that someone can do in Hollywood is come to you and say, ‘Here’s this great script, Arnold. You know, this is unbelievable. Let me tell you the story.’ And he tells you the story and you say, ‘Well, I don’t know whether this is the right thing.’ And he says, ‘Well, don’t worry about it. Let’s put it away. Here’s another script.’

“That is the worst thing. Now you know this guy is not passionate about his script. All he wants is a movie.... I learned this a long time ago, 25 years ago when somebody did this to me.... You have to let people know this is absolutely the most-important thing right now.”

Fine, but history has taught that governors don’t always enjoy Schwarzenegger’s luxury of being able to concentrate on just one issue at a time. Gov. Pete Wilson faced a series of natural and political calamities that were not conveniently spaced.

On Davis’ watch, California was being raided by energy pirates about the time his budget was beginning to burst. Then 9/11 made the state’s power and transportation facilities vulnerable to terrorist attack. True, Davis did not focus on all three at once, but he should have.

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So Schwarzenegger may yet be forced into multi-tasking.

Also, by now he should have learned the difference between a real deadline with consequences and an arbitrary Arnold deadline.

Last December, there was a real deadline for passing a bond/budget package and placing it on the March 2 ballot. After trying to bully Democrats and learning that wouldn’t work, the governor compromised with them and everyone beat the deadline. If they hadn’t, there’d have been severe budget cuts, steep tax hikes and public wrath.

In his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger set an arbitrary deadline of March 1 for passing workers’ comp reform. Most lawmakers rolled their eyes. Neither they nor the governor focused on workers’ comp until after the March 2 election.

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The real deadline with consequences was Friday, the final day for Schwarzenegger to submit signatures for a backup November comp initiative. That prodded both Democrats and the governor into action, because neither side wanted to risk a costly ballot brawl.

In the upcoming budget battle, Schwarzenegger can set deadlines until snow falls in Sacramento and nobody will care. There’ll be little consequence for failure. A governor can’t budget by initiative. There’s already a constitutional deadline of June 15 for budget passage that is routinely missed with yawns.

Schwarzenegger also learned last week that sunshine on public policy-making is a noble goal, but often impractical. His workers’ comp compromise was negotiated secretly in the dead of night, with virtually no time left for public scrutiny. That’s productive politics as usual.

He learned that there’s never a firm deal in the Legislature until enough votes are committed to back it up. Before that, it’s all wishful thinking. There wasn’t a real deal on comp until Wednesday night.

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He has learned that Democratic leaders aren’t always the bad guys. He gushed: “I mean, they worked really, really hard and I gained a whole new respect.... “

Schwarzenegger has learned that a pat on the back works, especially when he holds a stick in the other hand.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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