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Schwarzenegger’s plan depends on filling in the holes

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DAN SCHNUR is a Republican political consultant and a professor at USC and UC Berkeley.

THE SWING VOTERS who occupy the middle of the political spectrum and decide most statewide and national elections can be identified in any number of different ways. Over the years, they have been known variously as Reagan Democrats and Clinton Republicans, as soccer moms and NASCAR dads. In California, they’re also called commuters.

How do you get these commuters to vote for you? If you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger and you’re getting ready to run for reelection, you promise to build them new roads.

This is not to suggest that the upcoming campaign was the sole motivation for the billions in infrastructure bonds that Schwarzenegger proposed in his State of the State address last week. If there is a single point of consensus in California’s notoriously fractured political and civic culture, it is that the state’s transportation and other structural needs have been ignored for too many years. And if there is a single area of agreement that could unite liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, Latinos and Anglos, libertarians and vegetarians, it is that it takes far too much time to travel from home to work and back again.

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But the political and legislative obstacles to moving this proposal to reality are formidable.

State Democrats are leery of anything that may help Schwarzenegger’s reelection prospects, and they have begun to grouse about many types of projects that aren’t included in the governor’s plan. But at their core, Democrats like to spend government money to build things. So as long as Schwarzenegger is willing to do some horse-trading (if he gave up a prison for a new park or for housing, for example), and is careful not to let the bond package grow too large, he ought to be able to attract sufficient Democratic support.

Bringing Republicans onboard will be more difficult. Already angry over the governor’s decision to hire a Democrat as his chief of staff, and aggravated by other elements on his 2006 agenda -- importing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, freezing university enrollment fees, increasing the state’s minimum wage -- the GOP’s conservative base is edging toward insurrection.

Still, Republican legislators, whose constituents disproportionately occupy the state’s outer suburban and rural areas and deal with steadily increasing commute times, recognize that their supporters will benefit greatly from these new roads. And Wall Street has weighed in favorably, pointing to the advantages of long-term capital planning and investment -- as long as Schwarzenegger maintains his commitment to keeping debt service on the bonds to less than 6% of the state budget and passing a balanced budget.

But wary Republicans need to be convinced that he can accomplish these goals without raising taxes. So Schwarzenegger should argue that the bonds could be financed by those who directly benefit from a particular project. He should point out that although his proposals don’t preclude the possibility of a future governor raising taxes, they don’t increase the chance of that either. Most important, he should argue that an integral part of conservative philosophy is planning wisely for the future.

Currently, general obligation and revenue bonds are thrown onto the ballot every spring and fall with little regard for their effect on the state’s overall needs. Coming up with a comprehensive, long-term infrastructure bond plan would be a smarter way to go. So the choice he would be presenting wouldn’t be between his proposed bond package and no capital spending at all, but rather between his proposal and the level and nature of bond issues that would otherwise take place over the next 10 years under the piecemeal funding system.

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Schwarzenegger will unveil the new state budget today, which provides him with a perfect opportunity to explain how he can provide fiscally responsible funding for this agenda. Building roads and other infrastructure will have a positive effect on most Californians. But the governor has to start a serious and sustained conversation with his own party, and he has to start it now.

We’re listening.

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