Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is preparing an assault on the institutional power of California legislators after a month of contorted state budget negotiations in which his clout was questioned and his ideas were rejected.
The Republican governor may call a special election next year asking voters to, among other things, convert the Legislature to part-time status, strip legislators of their power to draw their own districts and restrict campaign contributions, his spokesman said Tuesday.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said this month’s contentious budget negotiations hardened the governor’s resolve to move forward with all or part of this plan, although a final decision has not been made. Stutzman compared the governor to a global superpower much like the U.S. -- compassionate and benevolent at times -- but “if you cross it, it’s fierce.”
Schwarzenegger’s intentions are often difficult to gauge -- he occasionally mixes threats with flattery and is well known for trying to get a psychological advantage over his adversaries. His new resolve to restructure the Legislature may be leverage he can use in exchange for cooperation on other issues, such as his plan to revise the state’s bureaucracies.
Schwarzenegger emerged from a meeting late Monday with legislative leaders striking an optimistic note that “by working together -- Democrats and Republicans -- we can make the impossible happen.” The governor celebrated the accord by offering a glass of schnapps as a congratulatory toast.
But negotiations over the now-$105.3-billion budget -- expected to be approved today by the Assembly and Thursday by the state Senate -- appear to have renewed the governor’s resolve to change the structure of government, much as he promised during the recall campaign but set aside.
During budget talks this month with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez -- a former boxer and Los Angeles labor activist serving his first term in elective office -- the governor made it clear that he felt Nunez was challenging him. Schwarzenegger’s attitude was that he would “teach this punk a lesson,” according to a person familiar with the conversations.
In an interview earlier this week, Nunez said Schwarzenegger’s weekend road show in which he cast legislative opponents as “girlie men” amounted to “a turning point in his tenure as governor.” To that point, Nunez said, Schwarzenegger had shown “strength that comes from bringing out the best in people -- that’s what it means to clean up Sacramento.”
“Instead, he went to his worse side: to try to threaten and bully. And it didn’t work. He did it and he became more of a partisan as a result of it, and I think it hurt him with voters,” Nunez said. “I do think [the governor’s] demeanor and the qualities of leadership began to dissipate -- those qualities that we all really liked about him. And then what we began to see was a different image. A different person. Not the same guy we’ve been dealing with all along.”
Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who has a far friendlier relationship with the governor than Nunez does, said Tuesday that he already told Schwarzenegger that any attempt to make a part-time Legislature or dilute its power to draw legislative districts would fail and only make lawmakers angrier.
“It can demean the Legislature, and that really helps you when you want to get something out of them,” Burton said sarcastically. “I told him: ‘You have no idea what you are talking about.’ ”
Burton said Schwarzenegger had no choice but to work with the Legislature -- the state budget, for example, cannot be established by executive fiat or voter initiative. It would need to be approved by the Legislature -- whether lawmakers were part-time or full-time.
By threatening to call a special election to deal with his reform package, Schwarzenegger would be acknowledging the contradiction between wanting bipartisan cooperation and continually asking the people of California to see the Legislature and special interests as inept and corrupt.
Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, said that if the governor attempted to weaken the Legislature by amending the state Constitution -- which would require approval by a simple majority of voters -- it could backfire and make compromise on important issues more difficult.
“Compromise is intangible,” Garrett said. “It requires repeated dealings by the same players. You have to know whom you’re dealing with and you have to have a system where people owe you stuff, owe you favors so you can get compromise. And you don’t have that in a part-time Legislature with amateurs who meet once every two years.”
Nevertheless, Stutzman said tensions over the budget confirmed in the governor’s mind “what he believed before he arrived in Sacramento.” Specifically, he said, that “special interests play a large role in influencing legislators and that more-competitive seats would help legislators of each party be more accountable to voters.”
The governor did not make himself available for comment. But Stutzman countered that it was Nunez, not Schwarzenegger, who was thin-skinned.
“Part of the key to the governor’s success is he doesn’t let the process affect him personally,” Stutzman said. “And so I think the speaker may be projecting himself onto the governor with an observation like that.”
Schwarzenegger came to power vowing to smash a Capitol culture “corrupted by dirty money, closed doors and backroom dealings.” He grandly presented his campaign finance and open government plan in a September speech standing before vintage locomotives -- suggesting that he would clean up Sacramento just like former Gov. Hiram Johnson, who smashed the powerful railroad barons nearly a century ago.
He promised to open his records and those of the Legislature -- even e-mail and internal documents exempt from the Legislative Open Records Act, his staff said -- to public scrutiny. He promised to transform the decennial redistricting process -- to place it before a panel of judges instead of in the hands of the Legislature. And he suggested that there should be 24-hour reporting of political donations as well.
So far, Schwarzenegger has not put any of those ideas before the Legislature.
“It is remarkable how extreme the turnaround is,” Karen Getman, a former head of the Fair Political Practices Commission and now a private elections attorney, said of the governor’s proposals. “It’s not just a question of tweaking his position on those issues. It’s really just ignoring them completely.”
To some, that outcome was inevitable. Upon taking office, Schwarzenegger needed the Legislature to fulfill his promise of “action, action, action” by placing a $15-billion bond issue on the March ballot, overhauling the workers’ compensation system and passing a state budget.
But now legislators have learned that Schwarzenegger is willing to confront them inside the Capitol and play hardball outside.
Schwarzenegger was confident and self-assured in the early part of the negotiations, sources said, but seemed to get upset when a furor broke out over local government financing. The dispute dragged on for weeks and was not resolved until Monday night, shortly before the budget agreement was announced.
“All the way through that moment, he seemed totally in control of where he was and how he was negotiating,” Nunez said. “It was at that point where things fell apart, and I think he didn’t know how to deal with the crisis. What was clear was what was lacking down on the first floor [of the Capitol, where the governor’s office is located] was crisis management.”
When it appeared that those differences had narrowed, two others flared. Republicans wanted repeal of laws involving a worker’s right to sue employers and payments for school bus drivers. Schwarzenegger was annoyed that Nunez wouldn’t relent, the speaker said.
The governor’s message was: “ ‘How dare you do this to me?’ ” Nunez said. “ ‘I’m the governor! I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger! I gave you [more aid for] higher education and health and human services. And now I need you to help me and you’re not doing it?’ That was his attitude.”
At another meeting with the governor, Schwarzenegger made it clear that he knew Nunez was to meet later that night with local government lobbyists. Schwarzenegger sent a message to the speaker that local government officials were his allies and that he would not tolerate any attempts to pick them off.
“He told me exactly what they were going to say to me,” Nunez said. “He said, ‘You better hurry up. They’re waiting in your office.’ The message was you’re trying to [mess] with me and I won’t let you.’ We were like, we have nothing to hide.”