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Aug 23, 2004 - 01:00 AM
by Margaret Talev -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Governor may say a lot with a yea or a nayFrom the morality of goose-liver pâté to outsourcing state jobs to India, where does Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stand?
Californians should get a clearer picture starting this week, as state lawmakers send a crush of bills to the first-time officeholder for his approval or veto.
Since his election last fall, Schwarzenegger has controlled most of the agenda in Sacramento rather than taking his lead from lawmakers.
Positioning himself as a moderate Republican and a pragmatist, he has fashioned campaigns of popular appeal - to promote citizen participation, improve business conditions, streamline bureaucracy and encourage bipartisanship - that rarely pin him down ideologically.
That could change, though, with lawmakers poised to send him hundreds of issue-specific measures by their scheduled Aug. 31 adjournment. Schwarzenegger must decide on close-of-session bills by the end of September.
"He's still somewhat of a mystery to some of the policy-makers, and to most of the public who see him still largely as this knight on a white horse," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
"Governing means you have to have a specific take on issues," Regalado said. "Any time you're forced to take positions, there's going to be another side, and some of his positions will run contrary to someone."
Some of the measures would require the governor to take a stand on questions of broad concern:
* Would reining in job outsourcing help or hurt the state's economy in the long run?
* What about raising the minimum wage?
* Should California look to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs?
Others speak to small but impassioned segments of society:
* Should ferrets be legalized as house pets in California?
* Should foie gras sales be phased out because, as activists contend, it's cruel to force-feed birds until their livers swell?
Lawmakers also are considering measures that are opposed by some of the governor's biggest campaign contributors. That includes a measure to let used-car buyers return purchases within a three-day cooling-off period.
Such decisions are a balancing act for Schwarzenegger, who campaigned to improve the state's business climate but also to diminish the role of special-interest donors.
Campaign supporters say they don't receive favoritism.
"I had the exact same experience with this administration as I've had with the other three I've had dealings with," said Peter Welch of the California Motor Car Dealers Association. "The legislative office makes it very well known to us that the governor does not take positions on bills until they get to his desk."
Schwarzenegger has signaled his plans in a few instances.
He indicated he would veto an energy bill by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, after Núñez took out provisions the governor wanted that would have allowed big businesses to shop for better wholesale prices than what utilities charge.
Núñez says his measure gives residential customers safeguards against an energy crisis. Independent energy producers said the measure gives an unfair competitive edge to utilities.
Schwarzenegger also has said he won't sign a measure giving a standard driver's license to undocumented residents. He indicated he could support a license bearing a marker identifying drivers as foreign, or a card that is a different shape or color - modifications the measure's lead proponent has said he cannot adopt.
Traveling to Las Vegas recently on a campaign to urge Nevada businesses to move to California, Schwarzenegger also hinted he would oppose a minimum-wage increase this year.
The governor's communications director, Rob Stutzman, said he expects Democrats to pass many of those measures anyway, to score points with their allies and put the governor's position on record.
"The speaker's engaged in a strategy to throw a lot of bills down here that he knows will be vetoed," Stutzman said. "So it appears we're in for a lot of politics."
On most legislation, Schwarz enegger has delegated his advisers to convey administration concerns behind the scenes - or left lawmakers guessing.
His legislative secretary, Richard Costigan, a former lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Stutzman says many bills raise questions the governor never considered before entering politics.
"The primary litmus test for legislation will be, does it impact positively on the economy and job creation?" Stutzman said. "That's the first hurdle a bill has to clear."
Most of what's likely to be passed in the final days is being pushed by Democrats, who control the Legislature.
"We are kind of in anticipation here about seeing whose bills are going to get signed and what he's going to veto," said Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-South Pasadena. Liu has a measure blocking state and local governments from contracting with companies whose call centers or data-processing centers are staffed outside the United States - one of nine bills attempting to rein in job outsourcing.
"He's not articulated how he stands on these kinds of issues," she said of the governor.
The California Chamber calls these "job-killer" bills that could hurt the state's economy by scaring away businesses. Proponents say Schwarzenegger might be hard-pressed to convince voters that outsourcing helps California workers as much as it helps corporate bottom lines.
"When we found out the state of California contracted with a company that had a call center in India to help welfare recipients deal with their food stamps, we thought it was ironic," Liu said. "California should be setting an example to create jobs, not sending them overseas."
Former Gov. Gray Davis was defined partly by what he allowed into law - an immigrant driver's license bill since repealed, restrictions on automobile emissions, expanded legal protections for gays, and measures helping his donors, from labor unions to high-speed rail.
To what extent Schwarzenegger's legacy as governor will be shaped by the Legislature is a matter of debate.
"I don't think bill signing defines a governor," said California Chamber President Allan Zaremberg, who worked for former Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. "What defines a governor is a governor's agenda and how successful he is in getting his agenda initiated."
That agenda has included threats to make the Legislature part time - through voter initiative, not legislation.
Schwarzenegger has chided lawmakers, saying they, too, often focus on trivial matters and make too much policy in secret.
And advisers say he is reserving the right to veto bills whose substance is tacked on in the final days of the legislative session without time for scrutiny.
Some predict the governor will use these rationales to veto bills in cases in which he does not want to spell out his ideological reasoning.
"It would be much easier to not take a position on these things by chastising them as being passed at the last minute, or being a special-interest issue," said Doug Heller of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "And that way he avoids having to say anything about goose liver."
Regalado said he expects Schwarzenegger to do some of that - on bills with politically weak constituencies - but also to craft several detailed bill-signing or veto messages on a few strategic bills, to demonstrate respect for environmentalists and perhaps other Democratic constituencies as well as business groups and Republican causes.
That could include a measure allowing owners of fuel-efficient hybrid automobiles to drive in high-occupancy vehicle lanes without passengers.
"This governor and his handlers are very careful to portray he's balanced and a centrist," Regalado said.
"I think what he and his handlers are going to try to do is make it consistently look like he's following through on all his campaign pledges, to pull that into the ballpark of what he's signing or discarding.
"It may take more than a year or two to get a real defining read on this governor."
The Bee's Margaret Talev can be reached at (916) 326-5540 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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