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Governor is MIA, critics say

Times Staff Writer

The state budget is overdue. California’s crisis-plagued prison system is on the brink of a federal takeover. The agency charged with putting tough new global warming regulations into effect is in turmoil.

Nonetheless, last week closed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attention thousands of miles east as he ventured to Florida for a turn before the cameras and a $25,000-per-table Republican party fundraiser.

To Capitol insiders, the trip was the latest troubling evidence that despite the many big issues before him, the governor’s interest in the nuts and bolts of governing has ebbed. Splashy announcements remain his trademark, but after the cameras pack up, Schwarzenegger has often not followed through. As a result, key parts of his agenda are foundering.

The difficulties are most pronounced with the state budget, which was supposed to be signed by July 1. In moves that raised eyebrows in the Capitol, Schwarzenegger has left the state twice since the budget stalemate began late last month.

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Travel is not the only problem. The governor waited until July 9 to bring the four legislative leaders into his office for a “Big 5" budget meeting -- the forum he and other governors have used to keep negotiations moving. The leaders from both parties emerged to announce that little got done. No more meetings have taken place.

“We’re all starting to say, ‘Mr. Governor, phone home,’ ” said state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). “We’ve got a budget impasse. We need you to engage.”

Republicans too are warning Schwarzenegger that his legacy is at stake.

“He clearly has a case of wanderlust,” said Bill Whalen, a Republican political consultant. “While it is good and swell to go around the world and talk about global warming, being governor of California is very much a pothole job. It is about dealing with matters both large and small.”

In Schwarzenegger’s political career, glitz has often superseded potholes. He announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show” and his recall events were tailored to swooning fans of his blockbuster movie persona.

Early on, the Legislature reacted with starry eyes as well. But now, as he closes in on the fourth anniversary of the recall, the novelty appears to have worn off. For adulation, he has had to turn elsewhere.

The contrast on global warming has been striking. Schwarzenegger has been celebrated on magazine covers and in national and international appearances for his call for aggressive action to curb global warming. But at home, with the governor largely unengaged, his own aides derailed efforts by the state Air Resources Board to push through global warming regulations.

The recently departed chairman of the air board, Robert F. Sawyer, learned he had been fired when Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff handed him a curt letter signed by the governor. In his 18 months on the job, Sawyer said, Schwarzenegger had not met with him once.

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The air board leader, according to state law, is the governor’s “principal advisor” on “major policy and program matters on environmental protection.”

Administration officials say Schwarzenegger is as involved as ever in the finer points of crafting policy. The trips and photo opportunities, they say, are crucial to maintaining public support for his plans.

“The governor is very engaged with every detail of his administration,” Schwarzenegger communications director Adam Mendelsohn said. “He is a unique individual who loves to be out campaigning and talking to people and selling his agenda, while at the same time spending hours focusing on the minutiae of governing.”

Mendelsohn argues that the meltdown at the air board was the result of regulators failing to follow through on the governor’s instructions -- ones conveyed by his advisors. When Schwarzenegger aides warned the board to go easier on industry, Mendelsohn said, the governor had signed off on the moves.

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Mendelsohn also disputed charges that the governor’s inaction was contributing to the budget stalemate. He said the Florida trip, which included an appearance at a global warming event and a fundraiser for the Florida Republican Party, would keep him out of the state less than 24 hours. He also said the governor has been meeting one on one with legislative leaders on the budget.

Others, however, say there is a clear perception in the Capitol that the governor is unfocused.

“It used to be that he was a lot more into arm-twisting and cajoling and cutting deals over cigars,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento. “Now he’s more interested in doing the global rhetorical visioning thing, which is a lot more fun. But he has some critical issues that require his presence. Not the least of which is the budget.”

Her advice: “I would cancel everything, stay in town and put my shoulder to the wheel.”

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On Thursday, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders held budget talks without the governor, who was in Pleasanton at a healthcare news conference with executives from Safeway.

After the meeting, they said a deal was nowhere in sight. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) warned that the impasse could soon lead to school districts not getting needed funds. Some smaller schools, he said, may have to shut down.

Democrats have already agreed to a budget plan that closely resembles the one proposed by the administration, but Republicans are holding out for more spending cuts. The governor “has the responsibility of getting Republican votes” needed to pass a budget, Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said.

Republicans also expressed frustration about the lack of progress on the budget.

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State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) accused the governor and legislative leaders of taking a cavalier approach to the impasse, which he says should be treated as a fiscal crisis. On his government website, McClintock points out that Schwarzenegger has failed to make good on repeated promises to wipe out the state’s chronic deficit. His latest budget plan is no exception.

Beyond the budget, another problem looms as the federal courts threaten to take control of the state’s prison system, which they have said is mismanaged. The courts have already taken control of prison healthcare.

Schwarzenegger has said a package of reforms he signed in April would keep the courts at bay, but others say more attention is needed. Among them is Robert Sillen, named by the federal courts to restructure medical care in a prison system where he says dozens of inmates die unnecessarily each year as a result of neglect and incompetence.

“The potential solutions have been on the table for years,” Sillen said. “And they have been ignored.”

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Romero said the governor has lost interest because the issue, unlike global warming, won’t land him on magazine covers.

“It’s his prison system, and he is not engaged,” she said. “It raises the question of whether he is just trying to send a signal to the judges to go ahead and take it over.”

Administration officials stand by the governor’s work on prisons, and point to his creation of strike teams that will speed the addition of thousands of new beds and an overhaul of the prison hospital system. Mendelsohn said Schwarzenegger went to the state corrections department in the spring to give a pep talk to prison managers.

Yet none of that will matter if the courts decide to take over the prisons. That has many in Sacramento reminding the governor that his priority must be manning the ship at home.

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“He has not had a good last month,” Republican political consultant Tony Quinn said. “Voters are not unhappy yet. But if this goes on for six months and he just doesn’t seem that engaged, they will be.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Problems pending

Since late May, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has traveled to Utah, Canada, Austria, France, Britain, Florida and Las Vegas, key parts of his policy agenda have foundered at home.

State budget

California is two weeks into the new fiscal year without a spending plan in place. GOP lawmakers are refusing to vote for the budget Schwarzenegger crafted, complaining that it would leave too large a deficit. The governor has held only one budget meeting with the four top legislative leaders since the stalemate began.

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Prisons

Schwarzenegger is in danger of losing control of the entire state prison system to the federal courts, which have already taken over prison healthcare. The bill he signed in April to keep the courts at bay might have the opposite effect. The governor’s involvement in the prisons has been limited since then, even as a potential takeover looms.

Global warming

The state Air Resources Board, charged with implementing landmark legislation the governor signed to curb global warming, is in turmoil. Its last chairman, who according to state law is the governor’s principal advisor on the environment, said Schwarzenegger did not meet with him once during his 18 months in the position. Environmentalists complain that the governor’s own advisors are undermining Schwarzenegger’s environmental policies by pressuring the board to draft rules that go easy on industry. After firing the former chairman, Schwarzenegger named a well-known environmental lawyer to head the air board.

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Source: Times reporting


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