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California Governor-Elect Faces Gridlocked Legislature, Massive Deficit - 2003-11-12

California's next governor, the actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, will take office Monday, November 17. He faces a gridlocked legislature, a massive deficit, and skeptics who wonder if California is governable.

State Senator John Vasconcellos is one of the skeptics. The veteran legislator has spent 37 years in the California capital, Sacramento. A liberal Democrat, he says the state's government is not working, and both parties share the blame.

"The basic problem is that the structure of government in California is dysfunctional and can not be fixed, and the culture of politics is cynical and can not suffice to inspire people. We need structural change that is profound, comprehensive and massive, and cultural change as well," he said.

He says the troubles include a broken economy, a continuing fiscal crisis, and voters who are frustrated and distrustful.

A fellow Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa, agrees with him. Now a Los Angeles city councilman, Mr. Villaraigosa is the former speaker of the California assembly.

"There is a partisanship that, frankly, is causing a gridlock, neither Democrats nor Republicans speaking with one another, and when they do, they rarely or ever listen," he said.

Democrats dominate in Sacramento, but cannot pass essential measures such as annual budgets without Republican support. Too often, they fail to get it.

Critics from both parties agree on some of the reasons for the gridlock. Most political districts are safe for one party or the other, giving party activists, who tend to be ideological, a big say in deciding who gets elected. And terms limits, enacted in 1990, ensure a steady turnover of Sacramento legislators, preventing the long-term relationships that often make compromise possible.

Mr. Villaraigosa says most California voters reject the bitter partisanship that they see on both sides. That is one of the reasons that they are looking to Arnold Schwarzenegger, a political novice, for solutions.

Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected last month in a recall election that ousted Democrat Gray Davis. The Hollywood superstar ran as a Republican, but received the votes of many independents and some Democrats.

Republican strategist Alan Hoffenblum says voters will judge the new governor on his ability to bring the parties together.

"One of the reasons that Gray Davis got recalled is because most people felt that he was not supplying leadership. He was not out there working with the elected legislators trying to create some consensus," he said. "So the very first test of Arnold Schwarzenegger: Is he going to be able to supply the leadership, working with that Democratic-controlled state legislature to be able to solve some of the problems facing California?"

State Senator Vasconcellos sees no hope for Sacramento short of restructuring the state government.

He calls his proposal a 12-step recovery plan. It includes suggestions for lengthening term limits and allowing unaffiliated voters to vote in party primaries, when the candidates are selected. He also urges public financing of campaigns, to eliminate the special interest money that he says is corrupting the system.

Political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is cautious about suggestions for political reform, saying some of the state's worst problems stem from voter-approved proposals that were intended to fix the system. They include term limits, and measures that require high levels of spending, along with other measures that make it nearly impossible to raise taxes for revenue.

"I do not see any hope for really large-scale multi-faceted reform, and quite frankly, we still have not learned that every time we try any kind of reform, there are always the unintended consequences. That is why I feel so strongly that no matter what the system is, it is the people who inhabit that system who make it work or who corrupt it," she said.

Ms. Jeffe says the eyes of the world are now on Sacramento, where Mr. Schwarzenegger will be sworn in as governor Monday. She thinks Democrats and Republicans will make an effort to compromise under the glare of the media attention. But when legislators start wrangling over specific proposals, she thinks the bipartisanship may evaporate.