The bond bust

IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU FEEL sorry for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Last year, frustrated by intransigence in Sacramento, he went straight to voters with his raft of reforms. And, as we all know, he got his clock cleaned in November's special election.

This year, he gets the message. He works furiously with legislative leaders to try to get $49 billion in bonds on the June ballot to help fund a popular infrastructure plan that would fix crumbling levees and roads, build new schools, prisons and housing and modernize water systems.

And he gets his clock cleaned again.

All sympathy aside, Schwarzenegger deserves a share of the blame for the bond bust. The governor, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) spent days in fevered negotiations and worked out a series of reasonable compromises. In the end, Perata decided against a Senate vote on the bonds Wednesday night, effectively killing any hope for an appearance on the June ballot.

Some speculate that Perata chose this course because Schwarzenegger was too weak to get a bill passed. All the governor had to do to get a two-thirds majority in the Legislature was persuade two Senate Republicans and six Assembly Republicans to support his package. That he couldn't find eight friends in his own party -- especially when a Field poll in February showed that 63% of Californians supported his efforts -- speaks volumes about his lack of political clout. We're talking about fixing levees here, not funding late-term abortions.

It doesn't help that because of term limits, both Perata and Nunez are relatively inexperienced legislative leaders with limited clout of their own.

Everybody says they will continue to work to get bonds on the November ballot, when the governor is up for reelection. On Thursday, Nunez said he hoped to hammer out a compromise by the Easter recess. But that won't be easy. State leaders still have to figure out what to do about water storage, highways and parks, and negotiations could get mixed up with spring budget debates and the primary season.

The danger is that the bond issue will become little more than fodder for election-year handicapping. Will the bond loss prove disastrous for the governor's reelection hopes? Or will it trip up Republicans who refused to stick up for it? Perhaps voters will turn on Democrats. Maybe the bond battle will spark real reform. Maybe it will just turn out to be another case of business as usual.

The only certainty is that, in the meantime, nothing is getting done in Sacramento. Roads, levees and schools are continuing to rot. And the ones who really lose out are the people of California.

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