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Leader can see hope in crisis

“California is on a track to a disaster,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday, and I was wondering just one thing:

What else is new?

I grew up downriver from Sacramento, way back when it seemed like there were grown-ups at work in the state capital, building roads and bridges and creating one of the country’s best public education systems.

But Sacramento is now a one-act circus permanently crippled by political division and led by a governor whose orange tones are once again a little too close to Bozo’s.

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Democratic legislators are an undisciplined lot, loose with the purse and in tight with labor bosses. And Republican legislators would rather throw the disabled and the blind under a bus than raise taxes a plug nickel to help them.

We’ve got a $42-billion budget gap anticipated over the next 18 months, the state treasurer is warning the state will run out of cash in 70 days, and legislators’ approval rating hit an all-time low (15%) in September.

All of which gets me to a press release I received earlier this month announcing the promotion of my local assemblyman, whom I’d never met, to assistant majority leader. I decided to get together with Paul Krekorian, a successful lawyer before running for office in 2006, and ask the obvious:

Why would anyone, without a gun to his head, want to be a legislator in this crazy state?

Krekorian met me for lunch at the Coffee Table in Silver Lake. He seemed thoughtful, reasonable, stable. Not the kind of guy you’d expect to trade steady work and time with family for Southwest Airlines peanuts on the way to and from Sacramento, where he’s got 80 children to deal with in the Assembly instead of the three he keeps at home in Burbank.

Here’s the story he tells:

Dad was a World War II vet who preached public service, and little Paul took it to heart growing up in Reseda. He went to USC to study poli sci and interned with Tarzana Assemblyman Tom Bane, an ally of legendary Assembly speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown. He got the bug.

“I grew up when schools were good. ‘The Wonder Years,’ that was my life,” he said of the coming-of-age TV show shot largely in Culver City and Burbank and set in the 1960s.

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“The state invested in education under Pat Brown, we built the community college system, the infrastructure, we protected the environment and governed based on what was best for California in the next generation and the next century. That’s essentially been wiped from the map now, the idea of working toward a future California my kids will enjoy.”

Krekorian was determined to fix that, so he ran for Assembly in 2000, but lost. Undeterred, he won a seat on the school board in Burbank, then ran again for Assembly and won in 2006.

The poor guy.

And would he have run if he knew what he now knows about the way Sacramento works, and doesn’t work?

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“Had I known we were facing this fiscal crisis, no,” he said, but then he smiled and took it back. Of course he would have, he said. A crisis like this offers an opportunity to make the necessary fixes.

Ahhhh, but there’s the rub.

The fix will take more than good intentions.

A nice start would be to get rid of the two-thirds vote required on budget matters (only two other states are dumb enough to do it the way we do), which means that nothing ever gets passed.

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And it would help if legislators weren’t all amateurs, thanks to term limits that turn them out of office just when they’ve learned enough to do something useful.

True enough, Krekorian said. You get up to Sacramento ready to change the world and quickly discover that it’s hard to make yourself relevant.

That said, Krekorian’s proud of having had more bills signed by the governor than any other freshman, including limits on ocean pollution and carbon emissions.

Assembly Speaker “Karen Bass told me to pick one thing and focus on that,” said Krekorian, who felt his natural strength was education, given his experience as a school board member and parent.

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But he soon realized what a sticky wicket that was, with competing special interests and shrinking funding standing in the way of improvement.

So Krekorian switched to renewable energy as his area of focus, but now here we are, with nothing on anyone’s agenda in Sacramento but the budget impasse.

Dems were trying to push a wormy concoction of fee and tax increases through; Republicans were clutching their wallets, and the governor, who long ago surrendered any credibility by going back on promises to tear up the state credit card and get special interest money out of politics, was busy pointing fingers at legislators.

Krekorian had the good sense to come home to his wife and children.

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“We haven’t yet decorated our tree,” he said Tuesday while shopping at Macy’s in Burbank, a chore he had put off while working on a budget-balancing proposal.

Krekorian still talks as if he believes it’s all going to get better in Sacramento, and I think he’s still new enough up there to believe it.

When I joked that one of his new duties was described by Bass as “promoting harmony among the Assembly’s 80 members,” he laughed but then quickly said he had seen signs of progress.

Not enough, I don’t think, for anyone to think Santa might deliver a budget agreement for Christmas.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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