Extortion, Zen, and Murder-Suicide Pacts
Water Wars Revisited, Running by Sitting, and Reform Breakdowns Make for Fun Week in Sacto
All you need to know about the dismal state of affairs in Sacramento these days is that the Assembly Majority Leader is drafting a bill that targets the governor as an extortionist. The measure by Assemblymember Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, was triggered by outrage and frustration among many lawmakers at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy threat to veto all 700 bills on his desk unless legislative leaders agreed to a deal to revamp California water policy.
As the Central Valley suffers through yet another year of drought, political pressure has grown increasingly intense for a plan to pump more water south from Sierra snowpack-fed rivers to the north. This has reignited the state’s historic water wars, which pit Northern California environmentalists, fishers, and small farmers against agribusiness and urban Southern California.
Moving to help the conservative-voting valley, The Terminator threatened to torpedo virtually every piece of legislation passed during the just-completed session, unless squabbling lawmakers settled on a proposal to let more water flow. A few hours before his deadline to act on legislation, however, Gov. Arnold blinked, signing several hundred bills. He didn’t get his water deal but now plans to call the Legislature into special session on the issue. A productive and fun time is certain to be had by all, now that the Capitol’s toxic atmosphere has been further poisoned by his legislative hostage-taking.
Torrico, a Democratic contender for Attorney General, made his symbolic move equating Arnold’s veto threat with felony extortion after incumbent AG Jerry Brown turned thumbs down on the assemblymember’s request for an investigation of the governor plot. Brown quickly dismissed it, legally backing Schwarzenegger’s right to engage in the game of legislative chicken, and advising Torrico that “compromise in the rough-and-tumble legislative process is not achieved by doilies and tea.” Ouch.
POLITICS OF ZEN: Brown, meanwhile, got good news for his still-undeclared campaign for governor, as a new Field Poll showed him doubling his earlier lead over Democratic rival Gavin Newsom, 47-to-27 percent. Paradoxically, the shift came as the San Francisco mayor aggressively stumped the state on behalf of his campaign, while Brown did virtually nothing to further his effort. His success at non-campaigning, which may demonstrate the depth of disgust that voters feel toward vote-grubbing politicians, led some pundits to opine that Brown, whose interest in Eastern religion is well known, should run simply by staying in his Oakland home, sitting in the full lotus, and thinking peaceful thoughts.
On the Republican side, the new survey showed half the voters are undecided. Among those running, former eBay executive Meg Whitman and ex-congressmember Tom Campbell are statistically tied, 22-to-20, with Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner bringing up the rear at 9 percent.
The stage is set for heavy exchanges of negative TV attacks between the billionaire Whitman and the multi-millionaire Poizner, who have been sniping at each other for months. The spectacle of two super-wealthy candidates spending massively on tearing each other’s face off recalls the “murder-suicide campaign” in the 1998 Democratic primary. In that contest, big-bucks warfare between business executive Al Checchi and Representative Jane Harman turned voters off and allowed then-Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis, the church mouse in the race, slip in as the winner. This time around, Campbell is the under-funded third man in the field; if past is prologue, his genteel manner and impressive knowledge of state issues make him worth at least a long shot bet if Whitman and Poizner launch World War III.
TAX COMMISSION FALTERS: The blue-ribbon commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to revamp California’s Industrial Age tax system began its work with high hopes it would offer a pathway out of the state’s perennial budget woes. It finished its task, however, by breaking down amid the same kind of partisan wrangling and deadlock that afflicts everything else in Sacramento.
Conservatives on the panel recommended a package of proposals-including flat income tax rates, repeal of the corporations tax, and a new, European-style value added tax-that analysts said would shift much of the burden from the rich to the middle class. Liberal members of the commission, joined by leading state economists, decried the plan as soak-the-poor politics, refusing to sign the final report.
As Capitol Letters previously reported, some reformers viewed the tax code rewrite as a key first step in breaking the politics of gridlock in Sacramento. But the commission’s report is widely viewed as DOA in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, so the best hope for reform now resides in an ongoing effort to convene a constitutional convention to craft a total rebuild of state government.