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07.08.09

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The Governor Plays Hardball

Bill Monning talks with the Santa Cruz Weekly about negotiating--or not--with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By Traci Hukill


FOR THE average Democratic lawmaker in California, the most vexing mystery playing out in state capitols right now isn't why Sarah Palin is stepping down or what will break the farcical stalemate in the New York Legislature. It's why Gov. Schwarzenegger, who just months ago united (relatively speaking) with Sacramento Democrats against their vociferously anti-tax GOP counterparts to pass a budget that included both cuts and revenue increases, has now adopted such a hardline stance against taxes that the Legislature's Republicans look almost reasonable by comparison.

"I think he is driven by a huge ego, and he has to be interested in his legacy, but I'm not quite sure how this stance helps, either," says District 27 Assemblyman Bill Monning, a budget committee member. "He's taking us from crisis to a worse situation."

Monning spoke to Santa Cruz Weekly last Thursday, July 2, a day after the governor had vetoed a package of three bills that would have forestalled the issuance of IOU's. The governor announced, even before they reached his desk, that he would veto them because they didn't represent a solution to the entire $24 billion budget gap.

Aside from the all-or-nothing quality of that announcement, what confounds Monning is that the content of the bills--cuts and accounting maneuvers--were the governor's own ideas, proposed in his original budget, which is why Republican lawmakers risked his wrath and passed them. "It wasn't trying to get anybody to agree to anything they hadn't already agreed to," Monning says.

The punch line: the governor's move effectively raised the deficit by another $3 billion.

"To me it's totally reckless and irresponsible," Monning says. "It's more of a monarchy than a democracy. He's negotiating by press conference and I think showing tremendous incompetence. Bravado does not substitute for good governance."

That the governor seems to be getting a free pass from the press--using his undeniable star quality to rivet media attention on his frequent press conferences--is an irritant to the Democratic lawmakers who are on the losing end of what amounts to a public relations campaign over whether to raise revenue or try to close the budget gap entirely through cuts. There are members of the public who side with the Democrats' approach, but Sacramento media have grown bored with the busloads of union and health care protesters gathered around the capitol each day, Monning says, so it's as if they weren't there. Meanwhile, the governor blames the legislature for not doing its job while rejecting any legislation that involves new revenue, including a $15 registration renewal fee that would have spared the state parks. Monning, a professor of negotiation and conflict resolution, says in effect the governor is refusing to play. "A basic principle of negotiation is if you reject a proposal, you make a counterproposal," he says. "All he's doing is rejecting proposals."

This leaves the Democrats trying to figure out how to get their message out and win over the public. On Monday, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass did some posturing of her own. She boycotted a meeting with Schwarzenegger and criticized him for comments he made to New York Times writer Mark Leibovich about his attitude over the budget impasse ("Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don't walk out of here depressed," Schwarzenegger told Leibovich. "Whatever happens, "I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight. I'm going to lay back with a stogie"). It's not a natural behavior for the Democrats, but it could be one we see more of in the future.


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