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Partisanship keeps grip on Capitol

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s vow to create a “post-partisan” string of accomplishments for California this year succumbed to the Capitol’s entrenched ideological divides, resulting in a legislative session that by many measures was the least fruitful of the governor’s tenure.

Extending health insurance to all Californians, Schwarzenegger’s top priority, foundered amid disagreements with Democrats about who should pay for it and opposition from Republicans who questioned the need for systemic change.

Lawmakers could not agree on how to safeguard the state’s water supply, despite a pressing drought and a court ruling that could imperil one of the primary sources of drinking water for Southern California.

And one political change Schwarzenegger sought, to make the Legislature less partisan by stopping incumbents from drawing their own district lines -- in effect, choosing their voters -- never got off the ground for the third year in a row.

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“This was the session of missed opportunities,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former consultant to Republicans.

Even when lawmakers did reach agreements, they were often inadequate.

A $7.4-billion plan to add prison beds to ease overcrowding failed to appease federal judges weighing a cap on the system’s population. Legislators refused to authorize an independent evaluation of the length of jail sentences, which the judges have identified as a major cause of overcrowding. A court takeover of the entire system still looms.

And legislators failed in their most basic job, to deliver a state spending plan on time. The budget came in 51 days late, after Republicans in the Senate mounted a rebellion. On the one hand, the final document protected a tax break for yacht buyers and gave railroads access to taxpayer funds to cut pollution. On the other, it prompted Schwarzenegger to eliminate programs to end homelessness and protect the elderly from greedy conservators.

Before lawmakers adjourned early Wednesday morning, the governor called them back for two special sessions to deal with healthcare and water. Although the Democrats who lead the Legislature expressed optimism that pacts could be reached, the issues that have bedeviled them for nine months will still be present.

Schwarzenegger maintained that he was satisfied with progress legislators made, but the contrast between two speeches, at the start and end of the session, suggests disappointment.

At his January inauguration for a second term, the governor expressed aspirations for a productive session like the one the year before, when he won accords on tackling global warming, raising the minimum wage and borrowing billions to repair the state’s roads, bridges, levees and schools.

“Post-partisanship is not simply Republicans and Democrats each bringing their proposals to the table and then working out the differences,” he said then. “No, post-partisanship is Republicans and Democrats actively giving birth to new ideas together.”

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His new phrase and weighty agenda won him national acclaim. But by the time the state GOP held its semiannual convention Friday, Schwarzenegger was so dispirited by his experiences with his own party that he gave Republicans a tongue-lashing for being obstinate.

“I wonder if we’ve been so beaten down by our minority status that we’ve developed a bunker mentality,” he said. “I wonder if we’ve come to believe that our only remaining power is to say no.”

Yet Republican legislators had little impetus to say otherwise. Schwarzenegger’s alliance with Democrats in 2006 had already soured many of them on the governor.

His January healthcare proposal, which would have required businesses to provide health insurance for workers or pay a fee to the state to help employees obtain it, asked GOP members to go against their political DNA and tax businesses.

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The governor will not be on the 2008 ballot, so Republicans had even less motivation than before to cooperate with him, and the healthcare plan gave them new reasons to believe he did not care about their political needs.

“Republicans will not vote for a tax,” said Rob Stutzman, a former Schwarzenegger advisor who is now a GOP consultant.

Dick Ackerman of Irvine, leader of the state Senate’s Republicans, said Schwarzenegger fails to understand that politicians are not grounded in the pragmatism of the business world.

“People up here are duty bound to represent their constituents and be constant in their philosophies,” Ackerman said in an interview.

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Democrats were in no mood to make concessions that would offend their constituencies either. Environmentalists’ opposition to above-ground water storage insisted upon by GOP agricultural interests led to a deadlock on that subject, and labor antagonism toward a requirement that all Californians hold private insurance helped scuttle a deal on healthcare.

In many ways, the 2007 session was the opposite of the 2005 session, when Schwarzenegger overreached in aligning himself with the GOP, provoking a Democratic mutiny.

That led him to take his proposals, intended to make it easier to cut state spending and limit the political influence of unions, to the ballot. The measures were all defeated in a special election.

This year’s big issues may also end up on the ballot.

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Any deals that emerge from the water and healthcare sessions -- already technically underway -- are expected to require voter ratification next year. And Democratic leaders have invested a great deal of political capital in a ballot measure that would change California’s term limits, allowing some veteran leaders to stay in office longer. The initiative will be on the February ballot.

Inside the Capitol, the mood this session was not as angry it was two years ago. But this year may have equaled 2005 in the lack of substantive bills.

Schwarzenegger and legislators passed one major piece of consumer protection in 2005, to protect car buyers. This year, they could not agree on how to ensure that students are not taken advantage of by for-profit colleges and technical schools, even though the governor called that a priority because the existing oversight rules have lapsed.

Lawmakers also rebuffed calls for greater state regulation of California-grown lettuce and spinach, the source of two major E. coli outbreaks last fall. Pleasing the state’s farm lobby, lawmakers sat on three bills that would have bolstered oversight.

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And the Legislature declined an appeal from sheriffs, farmers and utilities looking to stem the rising trend of drug addicts stealing copper and other metals and selling them to scrap dealers for quick cash. Metal dealers opposed having to keep records about who sold them scraps.

At the end of the day, wealthy interests were those who left with what they wanted.

The Legislature ratified six compacts with Indian tribes to expand their gambling operations, satisfying one of the biggest groups of donors in California politics.

In the waning hours of the session, another major contributor, Anschutz Entertainment Group, won eligibility for millions of dollars in taxpayer housing funds.

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Prison guards, also big givers, nearly got lawmakers to provide significant pay raises over the governor’s objections, but legislators ran out of time before the bill could pass.

Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders said it was too early to evaluate their record.

Said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles): “We would want people to withhold judgment on the session -- especially if it’s negative -- until we have the opportunity to deal with water and healthcare.”

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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