CYD Tells Arnold to Stop Fiddling While CA Burns

By Kevin Yamamura – Bee Capitol Bureau

Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A3

Stacy Berger, right, and Chris Chafee of California Young Democrats deliver postcards to the governor’s office criticizing him for traveling to Europe during budget talks and the Tahoe wildfire. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

After visiting the British prime minister, French president and friends in Austria, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns today to Sacramento with no spending plan in place four days before the start of the fiscal year.   

Besides traveling to Europe, the governor last week addressed health care executives, mayors and political junkies at three conferences in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

But the Republican governor still has not convened a “Big Five” meeting with legislative leaders in his Capitol office to hash out the budget. Instead, he has asked them to resolve their differences on their own, a contrast from previous governors who would preside over budget meetings with leaders on a daily basis.

Schwarzenegger has used a hands-off strategy ever since Republican and Democratic leaders last year struck deals on the budget and public works bonds without involving him until the end. The governor also allowed lawmakers to negotiate a $7.9 billion prison package on their own in April before he signed the legislation and praised the deal. 

Some Democratic activists criticized the governor this week for being absent earlier this week, but Schwarzenegger officials say the governor has found it more effective to have legislative leaders meet before engaging him.

“This is the same sort of leadership that led to the infrastructure bonds and the prison reform package,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “He thinks it’s better to have respect for all four caucuses and allow them to do their jobs.”

The governor’s top aides contact lawmakers in between leadership meetings to remain involved. But they do not sit in on meetings among Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines. Without the governor, the once-dubbed “Big Five” has become the “Big Four.”

Both Perata, D-Oakland, and Ackerman, R-Irvine, said they prefer to negotiate without Schwarzenegger until late in the process, and have not asked for his help. Before the governor left for Europe late Saturday, Perata told Schwarzenegger that his presence at budget meetings was unnecessary, though the Senate leader now believes lawmakers are at an impasse and need the governor.

“It’s worked in the past,” Perata said of the governor’s strategy. “I think this year he’s going to have to come in and lift a little more because we are quite a bit apart. The only way we’re going to close that gap is by having the governor force that gap to be closed.”

Former Gov. George Deukmejian began “Big Five” budget sessions in 1983 when he grappled with a then-sizable $2 billion budget hole, said Steve Merksamer, Deukmejian’s chief of staff.

“We felt like we couldn’t work with leaders of the Assembly,” Merksamer said. “There were too many issues and too many personalities, so the governor convened a ‘Big Five.'”

The meetings carried on for days, lasting from morning until night with a dinner break, he said. Gov. Pete Wilson took up the “Big Five” tradition in the 1990s, and Gov. Gray Davis convened similar meetings with leaders, although not as frequently as Wilson.

Merksamer suggested that term limits have reduced the collective budget experience of legislative leaders and aides, making sessions with the governor far less productive than they once were. The need for such meetings may be greater in years with more significant budget problems, said Dan Schnur, former communications director for Wilson.

“The biggest difference between Wilson and Schwarzenegger isn’t their negotiating style; it’s the economic environment,” Schnur said. “Particularly in Wilson’s first term, it took a lot of pressure and arm-twisting from the governor to get legislators to make some very difficult decisions.”

Despite daily “Big Five” meetings in 1992, Wilson and lawmakers set a record with a 64-day budget standoff.

“I remember one that was two months late, and the governor was here every day,” said former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton.

Schwarzenegger used to conduct traditional meetings with lawmakers as a budget rookie in 2004, when Burton was in his final term. Burton, a colorful Democratic leader, was known at the time for making espresso for the governor during the “Big Five” meetings, as well as for shutting off his coffee machine when the governor called lawmakers “girlie men.”

“He probably wasn’t as engaged as Pete, but you know, Pete had a lot more experience,” Burton said. “Arnold was engaged. He’d listen, ask questions, talk to his people.”

But Schnur suggested Schwarzenegger changed tactics completely after suffering across-the-board political defeats in 2005’s special election.

“Schwarzenegger learned that drawing a line in the sand at the beginning of the process isn’t nearly as effective as stepping in to reconcile the two sides at the end,” Schnur said.

When Schwarzenegger is out of state, state law dictates that he relinquishes his powers as governor. The California Young Democrats attacked Schwarzenegger on Monday for being in Europe during this week’s Angora fire and budget talks. Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, a budget subcommittee chairman, said Schwarzenegger’s overseas trip simply came at the wrong time.

“I think going off on a little road trip to Europe doesn’t send the best message in regard to engagement on the budget,” said De La Torre. “Even if you were to believe the ‘Big Four’ could bring things to a close in short order, he’d need to be there to close the deal.”