Hello to Partisanship

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to rid Sacramento of politics as usual and to forge a new consensus to restore California's fiscal health. Unfortunately, his first major effort to do that crashed Friday in a resurgence of partisan deadlock. Frantic efforts to figure out a compromise came up against a too-short deadline and political divides that could not be closed.

Schwarzenegger and lawmakers, some of them huddling in ad hoc bipartisan groups, got closer than most people had thought possible to agreement on his major demands. These were for curbs on state spending and a $15-billion bond to finance the current deficit. Both measures would have to go before voters, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley had set a Friday deadline for whatever might go on the March 2 primary ballot. "Failure is no option," Schwarzenegger told skeptics who doubted that a deal could be forged in such a short time. A compromise on the bond could have been pretty easily reached. The same was not true of the spending cap, with the two sides battling over where to set spending at its start. Unfortunately, everyone gave up too easily.

Now, Schwarzenegger's aides say, the governor will mount a voter signature campaign like the one that brought about the recall election against Gray Davis. The spending cap, untempered by debate or compromise, would appear on the ballot in November. Long campaigns for and against would seal a return to rigid partisan politics in California.

Lawmakers should get the chance to try again for a compromise, perhaps along lines of the bipartisan plan developed over the last five months by Assemblymen Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) and Keith Richman (R-Northridge). That plan would have put the starting point of the cap higher than Schwarzenegger's proposal but still below what the state spent per resident in 1998. Spending caps imposed in the past have been broken, but passing a new one was one of Schwarzenegger's chief promises in the Oct. 7 recall election.

Contributing to Friday night's failure was a split in the governor's staff. A hard-line faction aligned with Republican leaders in the Legislature opposed any compromise and seemed to prefer a public initiative campaign. Schwarzenegger did not help by spending much of the week traveling the state to promote his program. His personal involvement was needed to make negotiations work.

Old grudges, Democratic and Republican, also deteriorated initially hopeful talks. As Richman described it, Schwarzenegger was "working through the [legislative] leadership, which is driven by the extremes of their parties.... He hit a wall. He's got to figure out how to go around it." Giving up and going to the ballot is not the way.

Secretary of State Shelley should have worked much harder to stretch his deadline a few days. It could still be done, even by printing a separate March 2 ballot pamphlet. Schwarzenegger could afford to seek compromise on the spending cap because he has the final word in the form of his veto pen. He can eliminate or reduce any spending item with little fear of being overridden by the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger is still learning how to use his power to best effect. Giving up on compromise and going straight to a signature campaign will show more weakness than strength. He doesn't need to do it, as his close brush with success testifies.