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Pitching Public Works Bonds Now a Team Sport

It was a priceless photo for a Republican governor running for reelection in a blue state: Him standing at the mike, the two Democratic legislative leaders at his side.

All three grinning into the cameras in the Capitol news conference room -- announcing their bipartisan agreement last week on a bill to raise the minimum wage.

But that was not an abnormal picture in this atypical year. Bipartisan deals, aberrant in the past, have become commonplace: a $37.3-billion package of state bonds for public works, a rare on-time budget and -- the most recent -- legislation forcing drug companies to offer discounts to uninsured low- and-middle-income Californians.

The drug and minimum wage deals are bipartisan in this sense: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative leaders have agreed. GOP leaders haven’t, but they lack the muscle to stop the bills.

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Next could be a compromise between the governor and Democrats on a pioneering bill to combat global warming.

It’s no secret why the governor and legislative leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles -- suddenly became buddies. The voters sent a message last November while rejecting Schwarzenegger’s reform proposals: Knock off the politicking and produce.

The governor, to get reelected, needed to return to the center and change his image as a bellicose bully. The Legislature, if it was to survive -- let alone someday persuade voters to relax term limits -- had to stop looking dysfunctional.

All this is a roundabout way of getting back to that public works bond package on the November ballot. It’s in trouble.

“It’s going to require heavy-duty bipartisan campaigning on the part of the governor and the legislative leadership to pass these bonds,” says Democratic consultant Garry South, who’s not involved in any campaign.

“Everything on the ballot is in trouble. The electorate is in a pissy mood.”

South notes that voters in the June primary rejected an obscure $600-million bond issue for libraries and a controversial soak-the-rich income tax increase for preschool programs.

Schwarzenegger and the legislative leaders seem acutely aware that they need to jointly pitch the public works bonds. The governor has been pressuring the Democrats to hit the campaign trail with him, and they’ve agreed -- as long as they’re seen as promoting only the bonds, not him.

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“I’ve committed to campaigning on specific days during September and October with the governor,” Perata says. “The agreement was that there would be no [gubernatorial] campaigning.”

But nobody’s kidding themselves: When Democrats show up with Schwarzenegger, he’s pictured as a bipartisan problem-solver, rather than the old unpopular polarizer.

This is what the Legislature and governor placed on the ballot:

* Proposition 1A: Protects the gasoline sales tax from raids for nontransportation purposes.

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* Prop. 1B: $19.9-billion bond issue for transportation.

* Prop. 1C: $2.9 billion in housing bonds.

* Prop. 1D: $10.4 billion in bonds for school facilities.

* Prop. 1E: $4.1 billion in flood control bonds.

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Ultimately, South contends, the backers “are going to have to do triage. Take a very sober look and choose one or two bonds most likely to pass and maybe give lip service to the others....

“This is an awful lot for voters to swallow in one meal, and I don’t think they’re going to eat everything on their plate.”

Complicating things, there’s also another bond proposal Schwarzenegger is supporting: Prop. 84, an initiative to fund $5.4 billion in various water projects.

Additionally, there are four tax-hike initiatives that the governor is opposing. There also are three certain-to-be controversial measures: get tougher on sex offenders, require parental notification for an unemancipated minor to get an abortion and provide property owners with eminent-domain protection.

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“This is a very junky ballot,” Perata says. “So I’m glad we’re up first because there may very well be ballot fatigue -- people either stop voting at a certain point, or end up voting no on everything.”

Between Labor Day and election day, Perata says, roughly $300 million is expected to be spent on TV political ads in California. The budget for the bond package is a relatively modest $15 million.

There’s no organized opposition. “Our opposition,” Perata says, “is going to be public skepticism.”

The most recent Field poll showed that the transportation, flood and housing bonds had lost voter support since the Legislature passed them in May. The school bond hadn’t gained any ground. Based on the survey, the transportation measure had the best chance of passing, showing 54% approval.

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One potential problem for the bonds, some strategists fear, is Schwarzenegger’s constant sermonizing about the evils of tax increases. He could inadvertently persuade some voters to reject any new spending.

A dilemma for the education bonds is that state voters in recent years have approved $25 billion in borrowing for school construction. And in the L.A. school district, voters have authorized roughly $14 billion. When do the voters call for recess?

The flood-control bonds probably would have passed overwhelmingly just after Hurricane Katrina. But this is a year later -- and long after dangerous winter storms smacked California. Besides, killer flooding is viewed by many Southern Californians as a northern issue.

The best Schwarzenegger could coax out of his own Republican Party at a state convention last weekend were endorsements of the transportation and flood bonds. The GOP went neutral on the school bond and flatly opposed the housing measure.

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At least the Republican governor and Democratic leaders are linked in bipartisan harmony. They’ll need to keep making a big show of that to sway voters.

*

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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