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Gov. takes hard line on goals

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Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- With his agenda undermined by the prolonged budget battle, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has shifted to hardball negotiating in a last-ditch effort to secure a pair of key policy victories in the three weeks remaining on the legislative calendar.

The governor has made clear publicly that he is determined not to have his policy proposals co-opted by the Democrats who control the Legislature -- and who have signaled that the only way Schwarzenegger will accomplish anything is if he does it on their terms.

With a flurry of announcements and media briefings in recent days, he has redoubled efforts to push through his own plan to bring healthcare to more Californians, saying bluntly that he will not sign off on a Democratic alternative that includes substantially higher levies on employers.

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He also has moved to the top of his priority list a long-simmering proposal to reshape state elections to replace partisans at the Capitol with more moderates like him.

Administration officials said Thursday that if lawmakers failed to move on that plan, which would require them to give up the power to draw their own voting districts, Schwarzenegger could sabotage a likely February ballot measure that would benefit their political careers.

Recent polls show that Schwarzenegger’s popularity remains intact as approval ratings for legislators have sagged.

“He is taking his popularity rating as a mandate,” said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of political science at Cal State Sacramento.

Still, the governor is under pressure to abandon principles to make progress in the next few weeks. He met this week with reporters to dispel the notion, advanced earlier in the summer by state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), that Schwarzenegger would sign whatever healthcare bill was put on his desk.

“We have to . . . look at the total picture and not limit ourselves to just make it an employer-based healthcare reform,” Schwarzenegger said Thursday at a news conference in Los Angeles. “We want to spread the responsibility.”

He was quoted in the Sacramento Bee on Thursday as saying that he might even be willing to bypass the Legislature and launch a drive to put his own plan before voters.

“It shouldn’t come as a shock that Arnold Schwarzenegger is saying he doesn’t see healthcare as just him and the Democrats,” said administration spokesman Adam Mendelsohn. “The administration never agreed with that assessment. Talking heads and pundits spent a lot of time pontificating about how the governor governs. We always said everything was going to be done in a bipartisan way.”

Schwarzenegger seemed unconcerned by remarks from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) on Wednesday that the governor’s healthcare plan was untenable because it would need the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. That would mean that some Republicans -- whose relationship with Schwarzenegger is strained -- would have to vote for it.

The Democrats’ plan is structured in a way that it can be approved by the simple majority they command.

In fact, the governor suggested that he might interrupt lawmakers’ lengthy fall recess and call them back into session to resume healthcare discussions.

“It’s something to think about,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have to do everything we can to get all of those things done.”

Some lawmakers said privately that would be an unwelcome development after the Senate was stuck in town arguing over the budget for much of what was supposed to be its summer recess -- and little got done during that time.

Nuñez said he viewed the governor’s latest moves as an effort to reassert his leadership following a budget impasse he was unable to break for seven weeks.

“He wants to remind people he is governor,” Nuñez said in an interview Thursday. “I hope we can all take a step back and not draw lines in the sand.”

But O'Connor said the governor was in a good position to make demands. Though he may be anxious about the specter of ending the year with no major accomplishments, she said, lawmakers should find such a prospect even more worrying.

Schwarzenegger’s approval rating stands at 57%, according to a Field Poll released Saturday, and the Legislature’s is 33%.

The governor may be seeking to leverage his relative popularity into a deal with lawmakers on redistricting. He wants them to put a measure on the February ballot that would shift the drawing of political boundaries to an independent commission.

He said the result would be fewer districts dominated by voters from one political party and thus a less polarized Legislature.

“We must bring competition back to our political process to guarantee that our elected leaders are more responsive to the voters and respect the will of the people,” Schwarzenegger said at the Thursday news conference, where he was joined by former Govs. Gray Davis and Pete Wilson.

“The governor is absolutely accurate when he describes himself as post-partisan,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP political consultant who is part of a coalition that is working with the administration on a redistricting package. “But in the state Capitol, he is a very lonely post-partisan. Virtually every member of the state Legislature was elected to represent the ideological base of their party.”

Lawmakers have sent mixed signals about their support for such a plan, saying that many Californians in Congress oppose it -- their districts would be included -- and could raise money to defeat it.

But the governor has dangled a key bargaining chip: endorsement of a ballot measure that would extend the length of time lawmakers could serve in either house of the Legislature. Analysts say the term-limit changes many lawmakers covet have little chance of voter approval without the governor’s support.

“His endorsement would take it beyond being just a bunch of legislators who like their perks and want to stay,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book, a nonpartisan state elections guide. “If he were to oppose it, it would die.”

Schwarzenegger made clear Thursday where he stands. He was asked if there might be a deal in which lawmakers would put redistricting changes on the ballot in exchange for his endorsement of a change in term limits.

“It would be a smart move for them to make,” he said. “A lot of things are trade-offs.”

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evan.halper@latimes.com


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