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Memo to governor: Cut the road shows and try governing

Reading what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had to say at yet another wildfire photo-op assured me that it was safe to go on vacation for two weeks. There’d be no interruption by Capitol politicians agreeing to a budget deal.

I could play hooky on Lake Tahoe and not miss a thing of importance in Sacramento, except -- as it turned out -- the governor harassing 200,000 state workers by temporarily knocking down their pay to the federal minimum hourly wage of $6.65.

My green light came on July 10 when a reporter asked Schwarzenegger at a firefighting compound in Shasta County, 150 miles north of Sacramento, why he’d been paying so many visits to the fire lines. The telling part of his answer:

“I am a governor that does not believe that the action is in Sacramento and sitting around an office. That is not going to do anyone any good.”

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This may be true as it relates to dousing wildfires. But unfortunately, that’s the Schwarzenegger governing style for virtually every problem -- whether healthcare, education or budgeting: Hit the road, stage the “town halls,” perform for the cameras. Showboat.

Some of that is laudatory. Schwarzenegger deserved kudos for his hand-holding at charred sites of wildfire devastation in residential Southern California last October. But he overdid it recently in rural Northern California. For one thing, he had pressing business back in Sacramento: an overdue budget and a treasury badly hemorrhaging red ink.

Schwarzenegger’s comment in Shasta County underscored a fundamental problem with his governorship: He really doesn’t like governing -- at least in the tried-and-true, nitty-gritty sense of making government work effectively the only way it can in a checks-and-balances democracy.

Dig in and get your hands dirty -- mostly in the privacy of the governor’s corner office in the Capitol.

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Cajole and coerce. Reward and punish. Do favors so they’ll be returned. Use the awesome powers of office to sign and veto bills. Appoint a key legislator’s law partner as a judge. Place a lawmaker’s loyal contributor on the local fair board so he’ll have choice rodeo seats.

Particularly important: Help raise political money for legislators of your own party.

And schmooze, using all that gubernatorial mystique and -- in Schwarzenegger’s case -- charm.

With only one or two exceptions, Schwarzenegger doesn’t like to hang out with these people -- doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not about personality, it’s about business. He has virtually no relationship with any Republican other than the two GOP leaders, and even those connections aren’t cozy. That’s unfortunate because the GOP governor needs at least some Republican votes -- six in the Assembly, two in the Senate -- to get any budget or tax increase passed.

In fact, Schwarzenegger doesn’t much like hanging out in Sacramento at all. He prefers mugging for TV cameras anywhere else and hanging nights with his family in Brentwood, a natural longing. But he did run for governor voluntarily. And the job site is the state Capitol, where all the policy players work.

True, some out-of-town traipsing can generate public pressure on lawmakers. But Schwarzenegger increasingly has been failing at that as his shtick grows older.

To be fair, the governor did begin seriously negotiating with Democrats late last week over budget reform -- mainly some type of spending restraint and rainy-day fund -- that would be necessary to coax a tax increase from Republicans.

Also to be fair, Democrats in June asked the governor to keep his nose out of budget negotiating. They thought legislative leaders could bargain on their own, then send their compromise to the governor.

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But the governor should have known better. Lawmakers these days -- inexperienced and weakened by term limits; polarized by their own gerrymandering -- are incapable of settling a budget crisis by themselves.

“Getting the legislators to finish the budget without pressure from the corner office is like getting teenagers to come home early without a curfew,” says Dan Schnur, former communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson and the new director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“You’ve got to knock some heads.”

As his old boss did.

In his freshman year as governor, 1991, Wilson led --badgered -- fellow Republicans into voting for a steep, temporary tax increase to staunch red ink flowing even more profusely than today. After one long meeting with resisting Assembly Republicans, a reporter asked the governor whether he had twisted arms.

“Twist arms, I?” Wilson replied. “Gentle, persuasive fellow that I am? I will break arms if it’s necessary.”

There’s no record of broken bones. But the governor did orchestrate the toppling of an adamantly anti-tax Republican leader, Ross Johnson of Orange County.

Some current Republicans privately express frustration with Schwarzenegger for trying to have it both ways on taxes: publicly opposing any increase while, behind closed doors, telling GOP lawmakers that a tax hike is inevitable. (Most likely on sales.) It’s hypocritical, they assert: If the governor expects them to vote to raise taxes, he’d better lead the way by publicly advocating a hike and providing them with political cover.

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There is some evidence that even Republican voters could be talked into accepting a tax increase. The big Service Employees International Union reports commissioning a poll that asked GOP voters whether they would prefer that legislators compromise on a budget with both spending cuts and tax increases, or that Republicans stand firm against taxes. By 2 to 1, they preferred a compromise.

All this compromising should have been concluded weeks ago -- at least by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. No excuses.

While I vacationed, the governor played fire chief on TV and legislators pathetically procrastinated.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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