All rhetoric aside, the pen will tell

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Contra Costa Times (California)

SACRAMENTO — It’s decision time for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When he last fall repealed a measure granting illegal immigrants driver’s licenses he promised Latino legislators he would back another one. Will he honor his pledge?

He advocates innovative government and health care for the poor, and backs making California business-friendly. So will he sign legislation drug companies and business interests oppose that would make it easier to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada?

Then there’s foie gras: Does Schwarzenegger want to ban the sale and production of the delicacy created by force-feeding ducks or geese?

The three issues will likely be among the hundreds of measures the governor will be forced to confront as the Legislature floods his desk with bills the next three weeks.

The “end-of-session” rush is an annual rite in the Capitol, but for Schwarzenegger, a first-year governor who has never held public office, it could define his policy positions as never before.

“The governor has managed to speak out of both sides of his mouth,” said Jamie Court, director of a consumer watchdog group that closely follows Schwarzenegger. “But you can’t speak out of both sides of a pen — it’s either a signature or veto.”

Some of Schwarzenegger’s preferences are clear: He opposes an energy bill clearing the way for investor-owned utility companies to build new power plants and he’s against a measure giving car consumers new rights.

But on many other issues, the governor’s position is simply unknown. “So far it has been hard to peg him in terms of where his political philosophy is,” said Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political scientist who predicted the governor’s legislative decisions would become fodder for his opponents.

The Legislature has until Aug. 31 to pass bills. The governor has 30 days to sign or veto legislation he receives.

The legislation likely headed toward Schwarzenegger runs the gamut, from SB1841, a measure requiring employers to notify workers before reading their e-mail or tracking their Internet use, to SB1336, which would allow dentists to perform plastic surgery on the neck or face.

Publicly, the governor takes no position on bills before they reach his desk. Privately, administration officials sometimes prod legislators for amendments.

Schwarzenegger has no public position on many of what the California Chamber of Commerce labels “job-killer” measures.

“I wouldn’t predict where he would be on any one bill,” said Allan Zaramberg, the chamber’s president. “He’s going to have to examine all the pros and cons independently because he hasn’t had experience with many of these bills before him.”

Consumer advocates, such as Court, question whether Schwarzenegger will be swayed by $12 million in campaign contributions, many from businesses with legislative agendas.

“His claim to cleaning out Sacramento of special interests and special-interest legislation will be put to the test,” Court said.

One barometer of the governor’s loyalties is AB 1839 by Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, D-Mission Hills. The bill establishes new rights for car buyers, including a three-day cooling-off period in which a purchaser of a used car can return the vehicle.

The auto industry, which has contributed heavily to Schwarzenegger, opposes the measure. The governor’s aides have asked Montanez to tone down the bill.

Similarly, a bill requiring health plans in California to offer maternal care as part of basic coverage tests Schwarzenegger’s allegiances. Insurers Blue Cross of California and Health Net, two Schwarzenegger contributors, oppose SB1555, by Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.

Perhaps the highest-profile decision facing the governor will be the fate of the driver’s license measure for illegal immigrants, SB1160, by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. The bill would allow immigrants to obtain a license if they have no criminal background, can show a valid passport or similar identification, pay higher fees, attend citizenship classes and submit fingerprints.

The governor objects to the bill, saying that the licenses for illegal immigrants must be marked to be different from other licenses for security reasons. This week, administration officials and Cedillo, who opposes using a mark, launched a new round of negotiations.

The issue presents Schwarzenegger with a political minefield. He risks either upsetting Republicans who dislike the notion or powerful Latino legislators.

Petracca, the political scientist, predicted the governor would be shocked by the volume of decisions awaiting him, decisions that could later leave him vulnerable.

“Creating a record,” Petracca said, “allows someone to run against you.”
Times Sacramento Bureau reporter Kate Folmar contributed to this story.

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