Like the cinematic action hero he was, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants a big finish. With little more than a year left in office, he is willing to take hostages to get it.
So as the clock ticks toward a Sunday deadline for signing or rejecting more than 700 bills on his desk, Schwarzenegger has engaged legislative leaders in a game of chicken, threatening a mass veto if lawmakers don’t strike a deal to upgrade the state’s water system.
By most accounts, Schwarzenegger is acting with an eye on the past, present and future -- in particular, on the legacy of his administration.
“He’s a guy who swings for the fences on everything,” said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist and a visiting scholar at Stanford. “But when there’s no money, he has little personal popularity and his relationships with the Legislature are poor, it’s hard to find a legacy.”
State lawmakers are left to rue the possibility that a year’s worth of legislative work could be squandered.
Among the 700 bills are bids to help California war veterans reap more benefits, provide extra funding to low-performing schools, protect against predatory mortgage lending, aid foster children, require stricter checks on ammunition purchases, boost construction of toll roads and spur affordable housing in rural areas.
Democrats in the Assembly said they were informed by their leaders in a caucus meeting last week that the governor had threatened to veto all the bills if no water deal was reached.
And state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the governor’s office raised the possibility last week that the Senate leader temporarily withdraw the bills. The implication, legislative officials said, was that otherwise they would be vetoed.
“The threat is silly,” Steinberg said Tuesday.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said a mass veto would be “extremely inappropriate and irresponsible.”
Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico (D-Newark) upped the ante by sending a letter to Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown calling for an investigation of the administration’s warnings.
“These threats are akin to extortion or vote trading, which is illegal,” said Torrico, who is a candidate for attorney general. “The governor should be very, very careful.”
Republicans are standing fast with the GOP governor, saying the push for a water deal is the year’s paramount legislative effort.
“Honestly, I think the governor has to use every tool in the toolbox,” said Assemblyman Michael Villines (R-Clovis).
Aaron McLear, the governor’s spokesman, stepped around questions from reporters about the mass-veto threat, insisting instead that Schwarzenegger will “consider every bill on its merits.”
The governor met with legislative leaders for 80 minutes Tuesday.
Bass and other leaders emerged to say headway had been made and a water agreement could be at hand by Friday -- just enough time for Schwarzenegger to address the hundreds of bills on his desk before the Sunday midnight deadline.
The task of solving the state’s water problems, including the environmental collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, has bedeviled policymakers for more than a generation.
A special legislative panel met weekly for most of this year, and lawmakers pressed hard into the closing days of the legislative year to cement a water deal, but an accord eluded them.
As the governor presses for a solution, several sticky issues remain.
They include the size of a financing bond, water rights and environmental issues in the delta, the major source for water exports to Southern California.
If the governor can get a water deal, it would mark a rare major victory.
Schwarzenegger’s years in Sacramento have been dogged by budget deficits and electoral defeats of his attempts to change the way state government operates.
“This is the governor’s Hail Mary attempt at a legacy,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist. “But he should be rolling up his sleeves and working with the Legislature instead of playing playground bully.”