Governor’s bill choices leaves some guessing, pleased

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — As he campaigned for governor last year, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger promised voters he’d govern from the middle, leaning left on social issues and right on business and budget matters.

That’s what Californians got this year, analysts said.

By the time Thursday he finished signing the more than 1,200 bills sent to him by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Schwarzenegger had consistently backed the state’s business interests, using his veto to kill dozens of bills he – and his corporate supporters – consider to be bad for the economy.

He rejected a proposed increase dollar-an-hour boost in the minimum wage, turned back several bills aimed at curtailing the flow of high-tech jobs overseas, and protected health insurers from new coverage mandates.

But the governor who dazzled the Republican National Convention with his rousing prime-time speech in late August also rattled conservatives by signing a gun control bill and a measure supporting gay rights. Throughout the bill-signing period, analysts and legislators said, Schwarzenegger displayed his gift for surprise and secrecy.

“The governor enjoys keeping people off balance, it’s his trademark,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant who worked with Schwarzenegger on last spring’s bipartisan campaign to pass a $15 billion bond issue. “He’s very good at it, he likes to play things close to the chest and he’s well known to do the unexpected.”

As he won kudos from business groups, Schwarzenegger also earned applause from the left, as he signed bills increasing environmental regulations, easing restrictions on clean needle sales to drug users and providing money for child care. Throughout it all, he mystified observers in the Capitol and elsewhere.

For example:

– Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning the sale of dangerous dietary
supplements to minors. But he vetoed a measure requiring students to pledge not
to use those dangerous substances.

– He signed legislation raising fees to support air pollution programs that attack diesel emissions. But Schwarzenegger rejected new emission controls on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, two of the region’s biggest sources of diesel pollution.

– Adult drug users will be able to buy clean needles without a prescription thanks to Schwarzenegger, but local communities that want to set up free needle exchanges will still need to abide by complex rules and regulations after he vetoed a measure that would streamline the process.

Schwarzenegger made what analysts called some obvious political moves. Seven key bills by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, the Los Angeles Democrat who’s becoming the governor’s leading foil, passed the Legislature, but Schwarzenegger signed only one. That’s a slight rarely seen in Sacramento among the state’s most powerful figures. The governor even rejected a measure aimed at cleaning up metal-plating plants that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

Still, most believe Schwarzenegger kept his promise to govern as a moderate Republican.

“What we saw is what we’re getting,” said Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist who once worked for President Ronald Reagan. “If you look at what he’s done he’s taking a pounding from the left and a pounding from the right – this is who he told us he was.”

The Legislature’s Democratic majority sent the governor 1,265 bills this year – many of which were intended to force the fence-sitting Schwarzenegger to choose sides. He signed 954 and rejected only 311, far fewer than Republican leaders had hoped.

Some of those decisions have troubled his supporters, particularly the conservatives who were the main forces behind last year’s recall of Davis. Some are now reconsidering their support of Schwarzenegger.

“Obviously he’s still a lot better than Davis,” said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, one of the state’s leading conservative groups. “But for our members, Schwarzenegger has been a mixed bag.”

While Spence said his group knew what they were getting in Schwarzenegger, other conservatives say they were misled. Members of the Campaign for California Families, said Schwarzenegger told them he would stick to economic issues if they supported him and instead signed several bills that have upset them – especially gay rights and needle use.

Moderate Republicans, however, are cheering.

“It’s so pleasant to have someone making choices based on what he thinks is best for the state,” said Bob Larkin, a Ventura County businessman and former chairman of the GOP’s moderate wing called the California Congress of Republicans.

Consumer and liberal activists said Schwarzenegger showed himself a shrewd political operative who can’t disguise his support of big business.

“He’s been true to the Republican agenda,” said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based consumer group. “But he’s cleverly sprinkled in some signatures like needle exchange and environmental protection to make people think he’s a little different.”

Court said the governor’s legislative decisions are like “McDonald’s rolling out a new product line of salads – they’re still unhealthy but it gives you the perception that its not as bad as it seems.”

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