Star Power

Posted: Jan 08, 2004 12:00 AM

SACRAMENTO -- Sacramento insiders can't believe what they're seeing -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bounding to the Capitol patio with lawmakers to smoke cigars. Forget the in-house, working lunches of previous administrations: This governor dines in restaurants most weekdays. Schwarzenegger is the rare Republican governor who courts Democrats. He even sent a birthday present to Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Johnny Burton.

This is not politics as usual. Typically, when a governor is about to address the Legislature and present a budget, his overworked staffers look awful. Their skin is pasty or splotchy. They're tired and bigger than they were on inauguration day. Their posture is bowed. Their body language emanates one of two auras: harried or nearly defeated.

Given that the budget in the works is a world-of-pain spending plan with cuts that could approach $14 billion, you would expect the governor's crew to look utterly depressed, if not downright suicidal.

Not Team Arnold. Three hours before the speech, chief of staff Pat Clarey looked like she had been to a spa. After a grueling recall campaign and then a hit-the-ground-running month in office, staffers have lost weight. Their skin glows.

Dare I say it? They're pumped up.

And why not? Schwarzenegger is showing Sacramento what a man can do when he's not afraid to take risks. Of course, it helps when his adversaries in the Legislature know that voters hold them in low esteem but consider the governor a hero of sorts.

Team Arnold also can relax because after Schwarzenegger revoked the car-tax increase, used his executive order to cut spending and pushed the Legislature to repeal a measure that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses -- he has shown that he can hold true to his philosophy and compromise while still getting what is important to him.

One secret of Schwarzenegger's success is that he knows whom to cross when.

As Democrats and Republicans battled over proposals to cap state spending and float a bond to cover this year's $15 million shortfall, Schwarzenegger showed he was shrewd. He knew he needed lawmakers to approve the bond measure in time to qualify for the March ballot. But Democrats opposed the GOP spending-cap plan. With the clock ticking, Schwarzenegger saw it was the right time to say no to the GOP plan -- and he did it.

The gambit worked so well that State Controller Steve Westly was happy to hang out in the media tent after the State of the State speech and tell reporters that critics are wrong to oppose the bonds. "People say this doesn't solve the problem; it just buys you time," Westly said. But time is "what we need."

It's not politics as usual when a Republican governor works out a painless deal with a union. Yet, the California Teachers Association chose not to wrestle with the governor. Union leaders knew that education would have to absorb its share of painful budget cuts, so they agreed to cut school spending below its mandated level. End result: They limited their losses and ensured that schools will at least match this year's funding.

Now, the governor can use the CTA's example to squeeze concessions from other unions.

Another plus: Schwarzenegger was smart to drop his proposed cuts for the developmentally disabled -- and quickly.

Many Dems praised the decision to pull that cut on Tuesday night. (OK, but don't count on a spate of sequels.)

Capitol Dems can complain that Schwarzenegger hurt the needy when he erased the $3 billion car-tax hike. The more they do so, however, the more they remind voters that they were the ones who spent taxpayer money so recklessly that draconian cuts are necessary today.

After the governor's address, state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, told me she thought Schwarzenegger erred when he said a tax increase would be the "final nail in California's financial coffin." That, Speier argued, was "tactically a mistake," and the new gov will have to go back on it.

Speier's a savvy lawmaker, but I must disagree. Yes, the governor may have to agree to raise taxes: Fifteen billion dollars is a big chunk to tear out of a budget of some $100 billion, and he needs Democratic votes to pass a budget. Still, Schwarzenegger has nothing to gain by offering up tax-hike proposals today. Let the Dems fight for tax increases. Let them appear on the TV news every night complaining that Schwarzenegger won't raise taxes. At least then, if there is a new tax bite, voters will know who imposed it.

Asked on Wednesday about Schwarzenegger's debut, former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson said, "I think he's got the stomach for it." He has the stomach, and the style.