In a blow to California lawmakers attempting to legalize doctorassisted suicide this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday that such a momentous decision is better left to voters rather than to elected officials.
Thirteen years ago, California rejected an initiative that sought to let a doctor supervise the death of a critically ill patient. But with the U.S. Supreme Court upholding Oregon’s assisted suicide law this month, lawmakers in Sacramento are pushing new legislation they had hoped Schwarzenegger would embrace.
“I personally think this is a decision probably that should go to the people, like the death penalty and other big issues,” the governor said. “I don’t think 120 legislators and I should make the decision. I think the people should make the decision, and whatever that is, that is what it ought to be.”
Schwarzenegger’s comments came during an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club, an annual rite allowing a broad mix of questions and occasional humor about his sometimes rocky relationship with the news media.
In refusing even to give his personal views on assisted suicide, the governor nevertheless signaled that he would veto legislation on the issue should it make its way through the Legislature.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the controversial bill, AB 651, in March. Previous legislation on the subject has failed without reaching the governor’s desk.
Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), one of the sponsors of the current bill, said he was disappointed in Schwarzenegger’s comments and believes that the issue need not go before voters once again.
“The governor was elected to make tough decisions,” he said.
Levine said Schwarzenegger could have been caught off guard by the question Tuesday and have reflexively said “the people” should decide the issue.
He said the comments didn’t square with the governor’s promise to work closely with the Legislature this year, after going around it and suffering a sweeping defeat at the hands of voters in November’s special election.
By sidestepping assisted suicide in a year in which he is campaigning for reelection, Schwarzenegger can avoid a public fight over a complex and emotional social issue. He has done this on other controversial subjects, such as legalizing same-sex marriage, which he has said -- without offering his own opinion on the matter -- should be left to “the people” and the courts.
In California, Field polls dating back to 1979 have shown that at least 64% of those surveyed have backed assisted suicide. The latest poll, in February 2005, reported 70% of those surveyed in favor.
But in 1992, California voters rejected Proposition 161, which would have permitted a doctor to end the life of a terminally ill patient by prescribing a lethal dose of drugs, by 54% to 46%.
The California Medical Assn. and the Catholic Church funded a last-minute television campaign.
Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said the 1992 vote showed that people do not back the measure “once they look at what this issue is about, that it’s not about life choices, it’s about giving doctors legal responsibility to provide lethal doses of medication.”
There is no active effort to put an initiative on the California ballot to legalize assisted suicide. Rosales said that his group would continue to fight the legislative proposal. Supporters promised to push for its passage as well.
“Frankly, the fight is in the Legislature right now,” said Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group that represents 25 centers for the disabled throughout the state.
Also during Tuesday’s news conference, Schwarzenegger expressed continuing support for his new chief of staff, Susan P. Kennedy, who has come under criticism by conservative Republicans and campaign finance experts in recent weeks. The governor said that he would not fire Kennedy and that she is even more “fantastic” than when he hired her.
Some Republicans are suspicious of Kennedy because she is a Democrat who worked for former Gov. Gray Davis and on behalf of abortion rights groups.
Campaign finance watchdogs are also wary because her state salary is supplemented by payments from Schwarzenegger political accounts.
Some have said Kennedy should not play dual roles, working for the governor’s campaign -- wooing corporate donors -- while implementing public policy affecting those donors.
But Schwarzenegger said it was necessary for her to be involved with both his campaign and his administration.
“It’s the only way we can really make it work is by having [Kennedy] know everything that’s going on in the campaign and what’s going on inside the office, because she’s the one really in charge of laying out the whole plan and making the trains run on time and all of those things,” he said.
The governor further dismissed the accusations with a unique explanation: People should view Kennedy’s campaign compensation as being paid for with the $25 million that Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, have personally donated to his various election efforts over the last three years.
“I think my wife and I, we contribute enough money to our campaigns that you can consider this money coming out of our share rather than out of the various different companies’ share,” the governor said. “So there is no conflict of interest. So [Kennedy] is only representing us.”
Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who provided an informal rebuttal after Schwarzenegger’s speech, scoffed at the governor’s claim.
He said Schwarzenegger is failing to preserve a needed “firewall” between state and campaign business. At least four of the governor’s past and present aides have gotten a campaign salary on top of their regular state salary.
“If the governor’s campaign is being run out of the governor’s office, that’s just not a good thing,” Laird said.
“If Gray Davis, who was criticized for campaign finance, could see the line between public policy and private fundraising and establish a firewall there,” he added, “it’s a firewall that should have existed into the next administration.”