Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Governor and the budget deal : L.A. Times

Poll Shows Gov. Needs to Make a Conciliatory Leap on Reforms, and Fast

George Skelton
Capitol Journal

July 7, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a small step toward political rehabilitation by compromising with Democrats on a new state budget. Now he needs to take a very big step and negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a reform package for the November special election.

A poll being released today at San Jose State shows why such a broad agreement is crucial for Schwarzenegger's political future. And, conversely, it illustrates why Democrats are increasingly cool toward compromise: They think the Republican governor has trapped himself in a special election he's unlikely to win.

The statewide poll, by the nonpartisan Survey and Policy Research Institute at SJS, demonstrates why Schwarzenegger seems beatable on his "reforms." His main adversaries in the ballot brawl — labor unions generally and teachers especially — are much more popular than he is.

This governor has been violating a basic rule of life, let alone politics: Never pick a fight with someone who is bigger and stronger.

Some numbers:

• Schwarzenegger's job approval rating continues in free fall. Only 41% of voters approve of how he's handling his job; 50% disapprove. In late March, 49% approved and 38% disapproved. Among adults generally, current approval is only 34%, a steep plunge from 59% in January.

• But 57% of voters approve of labor unions; only 32% disapprove.

• And most voters — 62% — don't distinguish between public employee unions, like teachers, and their private-sector brothers, like Teamsters. They have a positive view of the whole lot. In fact, 56% say California unions should wield at least as much influence, if not more, than they do currently.

"Unions aren't the bugaboo among the public that the governor thinks they are," says the institute's director, Phil Trounstine. "That should be a warning for him."

The March SJS poll found that voters wanted Schwarzenegger to focus more on working with the Legislature and less on PR gimmicks.

By agreeing to a budget compromise Tuesday, Schwarzenegger did show he still can deal with lawmakers, despite his irritating them with bombastic rhetoric over the past year.

Now he needs to use all his negotiating talent to forge an agreement on long-term reforms, especially a spending cap. His ballot initiative — which would limit spending based on average tax revenue, transfer more budgeting power to the governor and reduce the schools' funding guarantee — is strongly opposed by public employee unions, especially the California Teachers Assn.

The new SJS poll shows why Schwarzenegger should worry about teachers union opposition.

Asked whom they would support if there were a battle over school funding between Schwarzenegger on one side and teachers and school administrators on the other, voters said by 2 to 1 that they'd line up with the ed folks (60% to 31%).

Schwarzenegger has insisted he's not attacking teachers — or nurses, cops or firefighters — only their "special interest" unions. But it doesn't sell. When most voters think of teachers, nurses and cops, they think of — what else? — teachers, nurses and cops.

Asked by the poll whether they think of teachers more as union members or classroom instructors, the reply was instructors by 3 to 1 (62% to 20%).

Moreover, the term "special interests" seemed to have little meaning for those interviewed.

"His whole rhetoric about 'special interests' as an evil force in California politics just hasn't gained traction," says Terry Christensen, a San Jose State political science professor and author of a textbook on California government. "People certainly don't identify teachers as special interests."

Notes Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna political scientist and former Republican official: "By taking on so many groups at once — teachers, other public employees — the governor got a stronger reaction than he expected.

"You have to pick your targets carefully. Too many at one time, you won't be able to hit all your targets and they'll shoot back."

Schwarzenegger blew his anti-union campaign early when he botched a proposed pension "reform." Some public pensions negotiated by unions have been too generous, but he overreached by attempting to switch all new retirement plans to 401(k)s. Then he endorsed — and later abandoned — a flawed proposal that failed to explicitly protect death and disability benefits for police and firefighters.

The main anti-labor initiative on the November ballot would require public employee unions to obtain permission from each member before using dues for political purposes.

"Make no mistake, this is a dagger in the heart of the Democratic Party," asserts Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles).

Before Democrats ever agree to a grand compromise on reforms, they'll require Schwarzenegger to promise not to support the anti-union initiative.

Legislators also will ask the governor to back a term limit reform. Nuñez has suggested reducing the total number of years that lawmakers can serve from 14 to 12, but allowing all the years to be spent in one house to retain experience.

The dilemma for Democrats is that Schwarzenegger has been demanding more flexibility on school financing. Democrats aren't in a giving mood on this. And teachers unions — buoyed by poll numbers — get downright enraged at the notion.

Schwarzenegger and Democrats have only one week left before the Legislature's summer recess to write a bipartisan reform package. That's an awfully big step for a weakened governor.


George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at

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