Democrats Ready to Battle Gov.

Times Staff Writers

More confident after weathering their first year with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democrats who control California’s Legislature return to the Capitol today, eager to reclaim the loyalties of centrist voters even at the risk of greater confrontation with the popular Republican governor.

With an estimated $8.1-billion budget gap, the fiscal challenges are as severe as in Schwarzenegger’s first year. But easy solutions seem fewer, with last year’s gigantic borrowing package difficult to replicate. That makes extensive disputes more likely between Republicans, who oppose new taxes, and Democrats bracing to stop Schwarzenegger from cutting health and social services programs.

“The dance has been done; we’ve learned each others’ basic styles and steps,” said Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), the Senate majority leader. “Is the honeymoon over? Yes. But we’re looking forward to married lives. We in the Legislature intend to be cooperative, but we’re also going to be more assertive in saying these are core values that we want to represent.”


Conflict may be greater this year as Schwarzenegger tries to make reform of the way business is done in Sacramento a central theme of his sophomore year -- starting in his State of the State speech Wednesday. Many of the ideas he has been mulling over -- including holding a special election to stop lawmakers from drawing their own districts, and reorganizing the way state agencies function -- are direct challenges to Democratic power.

“The governor hopes that legislative leaders will rise to the occasion and put reform ahead of special interests,” said Margita Thompson, the governor’s press secretary. “Legislative leaders are going to have to choose on whose side they’re going to stand.”

Schwarzenegger and Democrats found little common ground last year on a range of topics, including expanding medical insurance, raising the minimum wage, providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and revising energy policy. All will be back on the table.

So will perennial issues on which Democrats have not yet coalesced around one solution, such as California’s troubled prisons, pension and hospital costs, and emergency-room closures. And hot-button subjects such as legalizing gay marriage will also reemerge.

But at the same time, Democratic leaders have staked out an ambitious goal of focusing the Legislature on everyday issues that trouble California’s middle class, such as housing, transportation, water policy and education. Part of the effort, they say, is to show swing portions of the electorate that Democrats are as concerned with them as with the poor and with ideologically charged debates.

“We want to be able to articulate where we’re spending our time,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “Are we spending the majority of our time on gay marriage or driver’s licenses? No.


“The majority of our time is going to be spent on transportation, education -- K through 12, but higher education in particular,” Nunez said. “The majority of our time is going to be spent on healthcare. The majority of our time is going to be spent on prescription drugs. The majority of our time is going to be spent on preserving clean air and clean water in California. Those are important issues to us.”

Some of the battles with Schwarzenegger will be picked up where they were last seen in the fall: squashed under the governor’s veto stamp.

For instance, when Schwarzenegger rejected in September all the Democratic proposals to lower prescription drug prices, he said he hoped to persuade drug companies to voluntarily offer discounts to families earning up to 300% of the poverty level, or $56,550 for a family of four.

Schwarzenegger said he would unveil his plan this month, but Democrats are not waiting. Both Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento, chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, and Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer of Glendale are submitting their own proposals that would cover families with incomes up to 400% of the poverty level, or $75,400 for a family of four.

While Schwarzenegger said he wanted to set up a voluntary plan, the Democrats’ versions would punish drug companies that did not participate by making it harder for their drugs to be prescribed through the state’s vast Medi-Cal program.

“Not surprisingly, the drug companies have not come to the table and they’re not going to come to the table unless you have a big stick,” Frommer said. “This governor has put himself in a bad situation. He’s the largest recipient of pharmaceutical donations in America except for George Bush.” (Schwarzenegger has accepted $367,200 from drug companies, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization.)


Democratic leaders are also interested in revisiting the issue of how to provide health insurance to California’s 5.3 million people without coverage. A 2003 law mandating that employers provide health benefits was overturned by voters in November, but lawmakers are talking about introducing a revised version. Some on both sides of the aisle are exploring a requirement that individuals have health insurance just as drivers must have licenses.

The early push on healthcare is not surprising because it is one of the few areas where voters trust the Democrats more than Schwarzenegger, according to a post-election poll conducted for Senate Democrats in November.

The internal poll showed that the public had greater faith in Schwarzenegger to reduce the size of state government and improve the economy -- traditional Republican strengths -- but also to improve public education and transportation, policy areas that many Democrats considered theirs.

Democrats have not yet fleshed out a new approach on housing and transportation. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland said last month that he was intrigued with the idea of overriding local zoning rules to encourage more residences clustered near public transportation.

Some of the ideas the Democrats tested in their November poll included requiring local governments to make sure that at least a third of all new housing be for low- and middle-income residents, and having the state build new water storage and desalination plants to prepare for growth. Those ideas won overwhelming support, unlike legalizing same-sex marriages and giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, which did not muster majority support.

Conservative Republicans in the Legislature, meanwhile, hope that Democratic aggressiveness will press Schwarzenegger more toward their camp. Though he was aligned with most GOP lawmakers on many major pieces of legislation last year, the budget pact that Schwarzenegger struck with Democrats was so unpopular among Republicans that it barely passed the Senate.


Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) called the Democratic agenda that Nunez and Perata laid out last month “manna from heaven” for Republicans because, he said, it would repulse voters and unite Schwarzenegger with Republican lawmakers.

“They threw down the partisan gauntlet,” Haynes said. “Nunez basically said, ‘I don’t care what the governor wants, I’m going to do this.’

“That helps us with our agenda,” Haynes continued, “and teaches [Schwarzenegger] that this is a partisan place and their partisan agenda is to make sure he loses his next election and our partisan agenda is to make sure he wins his next election.”

But many Democrats believe Schwarzenegger already dispensed with his pretenses of nonpartisanship by campaigning solely for Republican legislative candidates in the November election. Despite his efforts, the balance of power remained exactly the same after election day: Democrats outnumber Republicans 48 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 15 in the Senate.

“The governor indicated his real feelings [last] year about the Legislature,” said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). “He has insulted us, he has castigated us, he has attempted to trivialize us, all because he would rather we didn’t have the kind of power the state Constitution gave us.”

Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, said the tone of the session would be set by Schwarzenegger’s decision whether to hold a special election in the fall. Democrats are discussing putting on the ballot some of their most contentious measures, including raising the minimum wage.


“The most important element walking in is what does Arnold try to do?” Cain said. “Does he try to shove some reform measures down the throat of the Legislature, some of which are partisan and none of which will be welcomed? Or does he back off of that and get into more of a negotiating position and merely use the threat of someday [going] to the ballot in ’06 as a way to get the Legislature to come to the table with him?”

The personal dynamics are somewhat different this year. Gone is John Burton, the former Senate president pro tem who made programs for the poor his bottom line and developed a strong working relationship with Schwarzenegger. Nunez’s relationship with the governor and his staff is not nearly as good. Last year both the speaker and the governor believed the other was not true to his words.

In the Senate, Democrats chose as their new leader Perata, who was considered the least ideologically combative of the three candidates vying for Burton’s job. But Perata warned that Schwarzenegger would pay if he tried to roll over the Legislature.

“There’s absolutely no reason to try to back us into a corner,” Perata said. “You’re not going to have 2 1/2 branches of government while I’m here. And he’ll also find that Fabian Nunez and I will be working very closely, stride by stride, on a lot of things.

“There is a lot we can do to be helpful to the governor -- or to impede what he wants to do.”