Governor gives in on rail bill

August 26, 2008 

SACRAMENTO -- Breaking his "no budget-no bills" pledge, Gov. Schwarzenegger on Tuesday signed legislation meant to improve the chances of a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The reversal comes three weeks after the governor vowed to ignore any bills sent his way until lawmakers agree on a state budget, now 58 days late. He even said "some good bills will fail."

He changed his mind because "the governor believes that just because the Legislature is over two months late in doing their job, that should not keep Californians from voting on these important measures," said his press secretary, Aaron McLear.

In a letter to legislative leaders, the governor urged quick action on four ballot-related measures, but only one of them -- the high-speed rail bill -- was ready for his signature.

He also asked for legislation placing measures on the ballot to revamp the state lottery, strengthen the state's rainy-day fund and a water bond. Republicans and Democrats are far from reaching deals on those proposals, and time has all but run out to get them on the ballot.

The bill threat was the governor's latest effort to apply pressure on lawmakers over the budget. Earlier, he announced a plan to reduce pay for thousands of state workers until there's a budget deal. But neither move has produced results.

State Controller John Chiang, who issues paychecks, has refused the pay order, setting up a court fight. The bill threat won't come into play for most bills unless the impasse drags on for a while. The governor has until the end of September to sign bills sent to him on or after Aug. 18.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have not embraced the governor's latest plan to use a temporary sales tax hike to help plug the state's $15.2 billion budget hole.

Schwarzenegger on Monday told The Fresno Bee editorial board that he planned to sign ballot-connected bills because it was the right thing to do for the state.

But Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, said the governor's reversal makes him look weak.

"You don't make a threat if you're not able to keep it," he said. "I think [lawmakers] all knew if he really needed the bill, he would sign it."

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, mocked the governor's reversal in a two-word statement tinged with sarcasm: "I'm shocked!"

Former GOP strategist Dan Schnur suspects the governor is taking a longer view.

"Years from now, no one is going to look back and say, 'We may not have a high-speed rail, but boy that Schwarzenegger sure stood on principle back in 2008,' " said Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

The current language in the rail bond measure, known as Proposition 1, prioritizes a planned route running from Los Angeles to San Francisco, through the Valley. AB 3034, by Assembly Member Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, removes Prop. 1 and replaces it with Prop. 1a, which would redefine the initial route to run as far south as Anaheim.

The bill also opens up other segments for first-round funding as long as spending does not have an "adverse impact" on the main route. Prop. 1a also includes more fiscal controls called for by the governor.

The old bond, Prop. 1, will still appear in the main voter guide sent to voters. Under the bill, Prop. 1a will be described in a supplemental voter guide, which could cost an estimated $4 million to $11.7 million in taxpayer money. Only Prop. 1a will appear on the ballot, according to Galgiani's office. Rail supporters had thought the ballot deadline passed Sunday. But the Governor's Office believes there at least are a few more days.

However, adding measures this late could cause logistical challenges for counties, which will soon send ballots to printers. Some counties might have to print two ballots, said Rebecca Martinez, Madera County's clerk/registrar and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

"I'm concerned about voter confusion," she said.

The route flexibility in Prop. 1a could give the "yes" campaign a wider voter audience, presumably making it easier to pass. But the changes won't sway the rail's most-well known opponent, the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The association says the state can't afford the rail project, estimated to cost at least $45 billion. Rail supporters hope to lure money from private sources and the federal government, but no firm commitments have been made.

The reporter can be reached at eschultz@fresnobee.com or (916) 326-5541.

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