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Nuñez covers the issues, if not the magazines

I screwed up.

Would Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez love to be on the cover of Time magazine? Sure. What politician wouldn’t? But he never said it. I misquoted him Thursday.

In a jocular mood, Nuñez had sketched for reporters the similarities between himself and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both are “eternal optimists,” won’t “back down from a fight” and “are committed to healthcare reform,” the Los Angeles Democrat said.

And, he added, “we both want him to be on the cover of Time magazine.”

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Except I didn’t catch the word “him.” Maybe, deep down, I didn’t want to. It’s a better quote without the three-letter word. With it, Nuñez is implying that only Schwarzenegger -- not himself, too -- is being driven to dramatically expand state healthcare coverage, in part, by the lure of the national spotlight.

But we didn’t need the speaker to tell us that. We’ve watched the governor take victory jaunts, across the nation and overseas, trumpeting his signing of Nuñez’s landmark anti-global- warming bill last year. Schwarzenegger’s pose balancing a globe on his finger filled a cover of Newsweek.

This year, the Democratic speaker is the Republican governor’s main man on healthcare.

“I’ll tell you what,” Nuñez told me after Thursday’s column ran, “if we do get fundamental healthcare reform and if we set the example for the rest of the country and Washington, D.C., then the governor would probably deserve being on the cover of Time magazine.

“Except this time,” he continued, chuckling, “I might insist, you know, that I want to be at least in the background -- since, on global warming, it was heavy lifting getting that bill to him. All he had to do was sign it. And off he went like a rocket.”

So Nuñez says he merely wants to be in the background of a cover shot.

That straightened out, I pressed the speaker about what’s happening in the Legislature’s “special sessions” on healthcare and water that the governor called with great ballyhoo nearly two weeks ago. It’s difficult to tell because the Capitol is practically deserted. Many legislators are off on junkets. And those who aren’t, if they’re not leaders, aren’t bothering to show up.

Healthcare, Nuñez says, “is not going to be easy, but I’m still optimistic.”

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Nuñez says he and Schwarzenegger are about two weeks away from agreeing on a compromise healthcare bill. Then the Legislature will hold hearings, he says, before passing the measure on a simple majority vote. The governor and Democrats will ignore Republicans who refuse to provide the necessary two-thirds majority for a tax increase to fund the ambitious program.

The next planned move is unprecedented: The governor and Democrats intend to sponsor a 2008 ballot initiative, probably for November, that would raise the needed taxes -- on employers, hospitals and probably sales-tax payers.

“I don’t feel fully confident that the voters will support us,” Nuñez says, “but I think they’re sending us the right signals.”

The signals are being sent through polls that show overwhelming public support for major healthcare expansion.

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But given probable heavy opposition from the GOP establishment and interest groups, including insurance giant Blue Cross, I asked Nuñez why he and the governor don’t just settle for some modest healthcare improvement that doesn’t require a tax increase. The 40-year-old former amateur boxer answered:

“It’s like in a boxing match. Before you start thinking about throwing in the towel, you’ve got to know that your legs can’t hold you through another round. And right now our legs are pretty firm. And the coordinates between the body and the mind are pretty strong. So I think we can pound through a couple more rounds before we start thinking about how to assess our losses and what are the minimums we want to go for.”

But, he says, “I’m kind of pessimistic about water.”

On that issue, Schwarzenegger and Republicans are on the same side, trying to build dams. Democrats consider dams a last resort, arguing for conservation and recycling. It’s a decades-old battle that doesn’t seem close to being resolved.

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The governor last week proposed a $9-billion water bond package for the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot. Nuñez and other Democrats contend that’s too much borrowing.

But the speaker says he might be willing to trade.

“There’s a lot of people in this building who really want water,” he notes. “If they want water as much as I want healthcare, I think maybe we can get somewhere.”

Republicans don’t want water as much as they want to avoid a tax increase.

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“No quid pro quo,” Senate GOP Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine told me. “These are two large issues that are totally unrelated.”

On another matter, Nuñez insists he hasn’t given up trying to reach agreement with Republicans on a way to strip the Legislature of its redistricting power and turn it over to an independent commission. But that won’t happen until next year, he says, too late for the Feb. 5 ballot. In exchange for a redistricting measure, Schwarzenegger had been offering to endorse a Nuñez-sponsored term limits flexibility initiative on the February ballot.

“The biggest obstacle to getting redistricting done,” Nuñez says, “was that people overstated how badly we wanted term limits [flexibility]. That’s hurt the cause of redistricting. The Republicans thought I wanted term limits so badly that I would capitulate to just about anything. And that wasn’t the case.”

But, I ask, why would Democrats give away their gerrymandering power without getting something in return? Good PR, he implies.

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“The rapport between the Legislature and the voters is not good,” Nuñez says. “And the fact that we draw our own district boundaries every 10 years hurts the reputation of the Legislature.

“There’s too many people around here afraid to give up the power of the pen to draw those boundaries. I’m not -- whether term limits is on the table or not. I think it’s the wise thing to do. And it’s going to go a long way toward restoring faith and confidence in the political process.”

That’s not a misquote. He seems to get it.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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