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Time running out for deals on health, water

If this were football, it would be fourth down and long yardage with time running out, the fans pretty much resigned to losing, but the key players still not giving up.

Same thing with the current Capitol games.

The year’s legislative session, already in overtime, seems to be fizzling out in depressing disappointment. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders still haven’t achieved their top priorities: expanding healthcare and updating the state’s waterworks.

But these key playmakers haven’t packed it in. Although the odds are poor, based on recent performance, they’re still trying to fashion compromises by Thanksgiving. That’s apparently the deadline to qualify a water bond for the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot.

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It’s also when a healthcare financing plan must be agreed on between the governor and Democrats in order to assure that there’ll be ample time to prepare a ballot initiative for next November’s election. The longer negotiations drag on, the less time there’ll be for gathering voter signatures, and that would run up the cost by millions.

There’s no hope that the Legislature will place a healthcare financing plan on a ballot -- thus avoiding the laborious, expensive initiative process -- because any proposal would require some form of tax increase. That leaves out Republican lawmakers. Some of their votes would be needed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority for legislative passage.

So the Schwarzenegger-Democratic plot is to pass a bill on a simple majority vote spelling out the details of healthcare expansion, then bypass Republican lawmakers and ask voters to approve a financing plan for the expansion.

That’s not only convoluted, it’s unprecedented in the history of Capitol games. And it’s symptomatic of California’s polarized Legislature, with Democrats and Republicans far apart ideologically. The only Capitol centrist with power is the governor.

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What really clogs up the place, of course, is the two-thirds vote requirement for virtually any money bill. Add in inexperience caused by legislative term limits, and a governor who never before held an elective job, and you’ve got a blueprint for paralysis.

It was fitting that the Capitol was shrouded in a dense fog Wednesday as an Assembly committee heard testimony on the governor’s $14-billion healthcare plan.

There was no official vote on the Schwarzenegger proposal. But, in effect, there really was because every legislator shunned it. Nobody would put a name on it. So it couldn’t even become a real bill to be voted on.

Still, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) promised in opening remarks that the governor’s plan would not be “carved up like a jack-o-lantern.” Indeed, he added, “there is a fair amount to praise.”

On healthcare, Schwarzenegger isn’t a centrist. He’s a liberal. He wants to provide medical insurance for everybody. And the toughest issue always has been: Who’s going to pay for this big new social program?

Hospitals have agreed to kick in 4% of their revenue in anticipation of gaining that much back in higher Medi-Cal reimbursements.

Employers that don’t already provide health insurance for their workers have acquiesced to paying into a statewide kitty to finance coverage for uninsured workers. The fight is over how much they’d pay. Schwarzenegger says somewhere between 1% and 4% of payroll, depending on the firm’s size. Nunez and Democrats are insisting on 7.5%.

Anybody ready to compromise on 6%? Apparently not yet.

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Schwarzenegger wants everyone to be required to buy insurance. Democrats and labor insist it must be affordable. That means subsidies. Who pays?

The governor suggested leasing out the lottery, contending that would net $2 billion a year. The Legislature has pretty much laughed that off.

“I believe there’s still a deal here to be made,” Nunez told the committee, while also seemingly giving members a morale-boosting pep talk: “We have the intellectual wherewithal in this room today . . . to reform California’s broken healthcare system.”

Intellect hasn’t been in question as much as legislating ability -- along with the courage to say no to special interests, like labor, and the leadership to make them like it. The same is true of the water war, where Democrats are intimidated by anti-dam environmentalists.

One hopeful sign, however, is that the governor and Democrats aren’t throwing bombs at each other. Schwarzenegger and Nunez probed for possible healthcare compromises over a 90-minute lunch across the street from the Capitol on Monday and agreed, at least, to keep acting civil.

The lead legislator on water has been Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), who also has been talking to Schwarzenegger. Their quarrel is over how much emphasis to put on dam building. Democrats want to focus on groundwater storage and conservation; the governor and Republicans demand dams.

Schwarzenegger has proposed a $9.1-billion bond that includes $5.1 billion for three reservoirs. Perata has offered a $6.8-billion bond, with up to $2 billion in grants for local reservoirs. In private dickering, each side has moved closer, but they’re still substantially apart.

The danger is that there’ll be dueling initiatives on the November ballot -- one sponsored by Perata, another by business and agriculture -- and the two will kill off each other in a murder-suicide.

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Schwarzenegger is pushing for a compromise on the February ballot, but Republican lawmakers are ambivalent at best. “Too many legislators think they’re getting jammed,” Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine told me. “When we try to rush things, the legislation isn’t well thought out. We’ve got plenty of time next year to make the November ballot.”

But the governor believes a November ballot is risky because of a worsening budget deficit that might sour voters on more borrowing.

And Democrats are anxious to produce something -- anything -- that will impress the electorate before a February vote on making term limits more flexible.

Time’s running out. It’s time to throw a hail Mary into the end zone.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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