The first 100 days: Government openness? Not just yet

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will unveil his reform plan in January, but an aide said his open-government provisions aren’t likely to become law before 2005.

The Sacramento Bee

Arnold Schwarzenegger rode into the Governor’s Office on a wave of popular support — based partly on his pledge to shake up “politics as usual.” The centerpiece of his reform agenda called for giving Californians increased access to government actions, banning fund raising during the budget process and requiring the immediate reporting of all campaign contributions.

“Everywhere I went during my campaign, I could feel the public hunger for our elected officials to work together, to work openly and to work for the greater good,” Schwarzenegger told the more than 7,000 people who gathered to see him sworn in as the 38th governor of California. Passing what Schwarzenegger calls “the People’s Reform Plan” is one of the 10 major objectives he’s pledged to accomplish within his first 100 days in office.

But Californians looking for a front-row seat at meetings between legislative leaders or access to Schwarzenegger e-mails shouldn’t hold their breath.

The governor’s staff said last week that Schwarzenegger will roll out details of his reform plan in January and acknowledged that there is very little chance his open-government provisions will be added to the state constitution before 2005.

“There was a lot to do this week. The Legislature is putting in long hours trying to solve this fiscal crisis,” said Schwarzenegger’s communications director, Rob Stutzman. “There is a limit to how much can get done in a short amount of time.”

Even if the open-government constitutional changes made the March 2 ballot and were approved, it would be beyond the 100-day deadline Schwarzenegger set during the campaign.

The administration has yet to produce a specific proposal, let alone secure legislative approval to put it before voters.

In the long run, open-government advocates are cautiously optimistic about Schwarzenegger’s plan to give Californians greater access to the inner workings of government. Campaign finance experts are less excited.

Both groups, however, say the hard part is not talking about reform but getting it done.

“On the one hand, I don’t want to do anything but cheerlead wildly, but on the other hand this is politically probably fairly unrealistic,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, has indicated he isn’t interested in altering his own open records or campaign finance behavior until the reforms are enacted.

With millions of information requests and hundreds of formal Freedom of Information Act demands coming to state agencies and the Governor’s Office each year, Schwarzenegger could change the open-government landscape radically with one executive order, experts said.

But Schwarzenegger said he’ll wait until his plan becomes law before he’ll release his calendars, schedules and other documents that governors usually don’t like to share.

“As soon as it becomes the law, yes, we will do so. I think we all then should do so,” Schwarzenegger told reporters on his second day in office. “But we are not going to have just one do it and no one else do it.”

Stutzman said the governor would be unnecessarily exposing himself to political opponents if he were the only one playing by the new rules.

In the California described by Schwarzenegger as a candidate in the recall election, residents would have much greater access to the inner workings of government, and politicians would have far fewer rules to hide behind when the public demanded records and access to meetings. Because the change would alter the state constitution, it would radically change the balance of power when it came to the public’s right to know.

“It ought to be the responsibility of the government to explain why something is not public, not the other way around,” said Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, one of the authors of the proposed constitutional amendment that Schwarzenegger wants to build upon.

As the model for California’s open-government reforms, Schwarzenegger pointed to Florida, where open-government expert Barbara Petersen said any letters, memos or e-mails between the governor and legislative leaders are open to the public. In that state, meetings between legislators and meetings between the governor and legislative leaders or Cabinet members are all considered public.

Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said Schwarzenegger is “backtracking” now by not living up to what he outlined.

“He could lead by example,” Petersen said. “When you take the high road, you always have the advantage. He has the opportunity to shame his opponents.”

Over time, she said, Schwarzenegger might abandon his promises altogether.

“When push comes to shove and he realizes that everything he does is going to be in, as he says, ‘the antiseptic of sunshine,’ he may very well have different ideas,” Petersen said. “It is easier, I think, for someone who has not been in government to say we should have government in the sunshine.”

Schwarzenegger also said he wanted to ban fund raising during budget deliberations and require the immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions.

But even as the Legislature meets to consider his budget proposals, the GOP governor has continued to raise money to pay off campaign debts.

He plans a fund-raiser this evening at the Sheraton Grand hotel in Sacramento, as well as a $5,000-a-head reception Wednesday at the Shady Canyon Golf Club in Irvine, an event sponsored by wealthy Southern California developer Donald Bren, among others. On Friday, the governor is holding a fund-raiser at Staples Center in Los Angeles during the Los Angeles Lakers-Dallas Mavericks game. Game seating and dinner with the governor in a private box will cost $10,000.

Those contributions won’t be reported until 10 days after they are received, in accordance with current law.

Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks said he supports the immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions but not a midyear fund-raising ban.

“All that means is people will do more fund raising (outside of) the blackout periods,” said Cox. “The old days of running campaigns without any dollars are gone.”

Cox said it also is hard to determine when the budget season is. For the past three years, budget deliberations have extended weeks beyond the on-calender budget deadline.

More extreme reform is needed, said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause.

“The proposal isn’t a bad thing, I just don’t think it will accomplish much,” Knox said. “We fundamentally needed to change our system and replace it with public financing.”

Knox agreed with Cox that politicians would just find ways around the system.

“I don’t think moving contributions to a day after the blackout period will change (anything). There would just be understanding that the check would be written when it (was) legal to write it,” Knox said.

Jerry Flanagan, a spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, called on the governor to lead by example on this issue.

Schwarzenegger should stop raising money now while he is putting together next year’s budget and considering midyear budget cuts, Flanagan said.

“He should show his leadership … by showing the way,” Flanagan said.
The Bee’s Ed Fletcher can be reached at (916) 326-5548 or [email protected]

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