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Enough green glory, governor. Now get back to work

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ANTHONY YORK is editor of Capitol Weekly.

OF LATE, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ridden the green wave to national -- even global -- prominence. He has received fawning media coverage -- landing on the covers of Newsweek and Outside -- as he travels the nation calling for tougher controls on carbon emissions to slow global warming.

In a New York speech, he scolded Detroit automakers for challenging California’s stricter car-emissions standards, and in Washington, he preached that environmentalism is “hip.” He will even appear in an episode of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” to inspect a remade car that runs on clean-burning fuel.

Schwarzenegger’s green crusade has been a marketing coup, but some festering political issues at home may abruptly bring him down to political earth. Resolving these problems will do more to shape his legacy as governor than the landmark legislation he signed to slow global warming.

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Chief among them is overcrowding in the state’s prisons, in which 172,000 inmates occupy space for 100,000 and about 16,000 convicts are sleeping in hallways, gyms, recreation rooms or other areas not designed for housing. A federal judge has given the state until May 16 to come up with a plan to alleviate the overcrowding. If the state fails to act, the judge has threatened to cap the inmate population, which means that thousands could be released. The feds have already taken over the prison healthcare system, and U.S. control of the prison system as well would deeply embarrass Schwarzenegger.

While the governor was posing for the cover of Outside magazine, Democrats in the Legislature were ripping up his prisons plan. Until new prisons are built, Schwarzenegger has proposed adding 16,000 beds in existing facilities and constructing buildings to house another 7,000 short-timers. But the chairman of the state Senate budget subcommittee on prisons, Mike Machado (D-Linden), called the plan “incomplete, inadequate and unacceptable” because it lacked details and shortchanged rehabilitation programs. Nevertheless, administration officials insist that a deal is imminent, even a week or so away. Of course, they’ve been saying that for more than a month.

It didn’t help matters when it was revealed last week that a new death chamber was under construction in San Quentin. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said the administration’s secrecy on the project raised doubts about whether the Legislature should grant the governor the authority he wants to build $10-billion worth of prison beds.

With the May 16 deadline approaching, the state’s powerful prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is renegotiating its contract with the administration. The union spearheaded the campaign against Schwarzenegger’s 2005 initiatives, and it has already rejected a proposal that would give its members an 18% raise over the next four years. It is pressuring political allies in both parties to use the deadline to force Schwarzenegger to sign a contract that would allow guards to file grievances against wardens. The negotiations have already complicated talks on prison reform.

Although prison overcrowding is his most time-sensitive issue, the topic most tied to Schwarzenegger’s potential legacy is healthcare reform. The governor dedicated one-third of his State of the State address to the idea of universal healthcare for all Californians. Yet, three months later, he has not put any proposal into legislative form.

The governor’s aides have been meeting with the legislative leadership, insurers and physician and hospital groups as many as four times a week. The Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate are expected to unveil their proposals this week. So far, Schwarzenegger seems content to allow others to introduce legislation.

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Then there’s the dreaded May budget revision, when state finance officials get their tally of actual tax receipts and compare them with the governor’s January revenue and spending projections. Early indications are that the state’s revenues will be at least $1 billion less than projected by the state Department of Finance in January. This probably will motivate Republicans, led by Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis, to urge the governor to take a harder line on state spending. In contrast to last year, all sides are girding for a long budget fight this summer. Villines has already sided with business groups in opposing the governor’s healthcare plan, which they say will impose new taxes on California businesses.

Schwarzenegger, meantime, must deal with two political reform issues that could blow back on his prison and universal healthcare goals. Democratic leaders have put forth a term-limits proposal -- one 12-year stint in either the Assembly or Senate instead of the current 14 years divided between the two houses -- that would allow both Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Perata to keep their jobs for at least four more years. Schwarzenegger has said he will not support any change in the law unless the state’s method of drawing legislative and congressional districts is also modified. Last week, Nunez revealed his plan, which would give the political mapmaking power to members of the Little Hoover Commission. But it drew immediate criticism from Republicans and from congressional Democrats, who worry that change could cost them their majority in the House of Representatives.

California governors should occasionally take the national stage and turn the nation’s spotlight onto the Golden State. But his time on the green wave will do little to help Schwarzenegger come up with a sequel to last year’s greenhouse-gases triumph in the Legislature.

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