With vetos and signatures, Schwarzenegger’s politics are revealed

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San Jose Mercury News (California)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A year ago this week, California voters ushered Arnold Schwarzenegger onto the political stage with little idea how the self-described moderate Republican would perform.

Now, 1,265 bills later, Schwarzenegger is no longer an abstract collection of ideas and rhetoric.

He took steps to curb air pollution and the spread of AIDS. He helped domestic partners and drug felons. But he vetoed bills to raise the minimum wage, limit car dealer mark-ups and increase access to lower-cost Canadian drugs.

Governor Schwarzenegger has lived up to candidate Schwarzenegger’s rhetoric of being a fiscal hawk, vetoing all 10 bills the Chamber of Commerce considered “job killers.” But he has taken a centrist course on social issues and burnished his credentials as an environmentalist.

“He is in the middle and that’s why he has 61 percent popularity,” said political science professor Bruce Cain of the University of California-Berkeley. “The one thing he really believes in is making California business-friendly and everything else is up for grabs.”

Provided it doesn’t expand the size of government. Bills that would have added to the bureaucracy were generally rejected by Schwarzenegger, who instead wants to push ahead with his vision for overhauling government agencies and departments.

Schwarzenegger was swept into office last October as an independent force to shake-up the Capitol. He declared himself “the people’s governor.”

But, in governing from the middle, he has had to navigate the tensions in his eclectic mix of supporters. Moderates and conservative Republicans rallied behind him in the recall. So did 37 percent of traditionally Democratic labor union members.

“It’s tough to harmonize all these interests,” said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. “He’s affirming that he’s a different kind of Republican, but when he’s against minimum wage, he’s confirming ‘I may be liberal on some of these things, but I’m pretty much a business guy, a corporate guy when it comes to management and labor issues.'”

On bills Democrats thought might test the governor’s loyalties, such as requiring insurance companies to provide maternity coverage, Schwarzenegger came down solidly on the side of business.

He aligned with auto dealers, rejecting legislation to give new rights to car buyers. He sided with pharmaceutical companies, vetoing bills to promote Canadian drugs. Although he did agree to legislation to limit drug companies from giving gifts and incentives to doctors, it was not enough to shake criticism that he is anti-consumer and beholden to campaign-contributing special
interests he vowed to sweep out of Sacramento.

Pharmaceutical companies helped underwrite parties last month in Schwarzenegger’s honor at the GOP convention in New York and have contributed $337,000 to the governor, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

“He campaigned as a populist who promised to break the stranglehold of special interests and put the people first, but he chose to stand with special interests and not the people,” said Democratic Assemblyman Dario Frommer.

Schwarzenegger’s press secretary, Margita Thompson, said the governor makes decisions based on policy, not politics. His record, she said, is consistent with his campaign promises.

“The governor ran on changing the economy and creating jobs,” Thompson said. “The entire state benefits from having an improved jobs climate.”

Democrats remain unconvinced. They have tried to portray his pro-business positions as anti-worker. When he vetoed a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, Democrats mocked him, sending out e-mails of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s head pasted onto the former body-builder’s bikini-clad frame.

But the new governor moved to the left of Wilson, the state’s last Republican chief executive, in signing off on a series of bills that received virtually no GOP support. He allowed pharmacies to sell hypodermic needles without a prescription to stem the spread of AIDS and lifted a ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons.

The governor angered conservatives by requiring insurance companies to provide domestic partners the same benefits as married couples and extending the state’s assault weapons ban to include .50-caliber rifles.

If Schwarzenegger is going to antagonize conservatives on social issues, Republican strategists cautioned, he cannot afford to lose his fiscal discipline.

“If he starts going off the reservation on economic issues, he removes a pillar of support that some people psychologically need,” said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant.

Conservative Assemblyman Tim Leslie said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the governor’s record on what Leslie considers moral issues. He doubted it would affect the party’s relationship with Schwarzenegger.

“He’s our governor,” Leslie said. “What would we rather have – Gray Davis back? I don’t think so.”

Schwarzenegger surprised legislators in both parties by signing a bill he once ridiculed as “absurd.” The governor embraced a ban on the force-feeding of ducks to make foie gras, and signed another prohibiting the declawing of exotic cats such as tigers.

His signature on those bills was especially striking because of the governor’s near-record rate of vetoes _ the second-highest percentage since 1966. From his office at the Hyatt hotel across the street from the Capitol and from the patio of his Brentwood home, the governor rejected nearly one-quarter of the bills sent to him by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

In doing so, Schwarzenegger largely restored the historical balance of power in the Capitol, where Republican governors from 1983 to 1998 mostly served as backstops blocking liberal Democratic bills.

Schwarzenegger’s veto messages underscored his call for a part-time Legislature. He spurned legislative solutions in favor of action by his state agencies and departments. For instance, he directed the Parks and Recreation Department to develop safety standards for snowmobiles instead of signing a bill to require rental companies to provide training and equipment.

“If an agency has the ability to do it, what’s the need to do it in statute?” said Legislative Affairs Secretary Richard Costigan.

Demonstrating his free-market philosophy, Schwarzenegger rejected new rules for businesses. Instead of requiring hospitals to provide discounts to low-income, uninsured patients, Schwarzenegger said, “voluntary guidelines must be given time to be implemented and reviewed.” Likewise, the governor wants to try negotiating with drug companies for discounts before he considers imposing legislative regulations.

The governor also sought to make way for his top-to-bottom review of state government – the California Performance Review – by rejecting bills that would add to the bureaucracy.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have created a new adult education commission, saying “it is premature to make any changes to existing agencies or commissions until these recommendations are fully vetted.”

The governor’s view, Costigan said, is “how can you change and reorganize government if you continue to grow it?”

To analysts, though, Schwarzenegger’s actions show he is trying to grab more power for the executive branch.

“When you only have a little turf, you’re going to defend it fiercely,” said Thad Kousser, assistant political science professor University of California-San Diego. “That’s the message he’s sending.”

Consumer Watchdog
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