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He's Going to Pump--Them Up

Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on the California legislature: Is he just trying to pass a budget, or does he have his sights set on a bigger goal?

12:00 AM, Jul 21, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS in Sacramento usually don't heat up until the temperature climbs past the 100-degree mark. Not this year. Sacramento hit triple digits on July 5; the Golden State's budget is now three weeks past its July 1 due date.

As for political rhetoric, all it took to overheat were a few wisecracks from the Governator, which occurred this weekend when Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the campaign trial to express his dissatisfaction with the Democratic-controlled and humor-challenged legislature.

"They cannot have the guts to come out in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you. I want to represent those special interests: the unions, the trial lawyers,'" Schwarzenegger told an approving crowd at an Inland Empire shopping mall. "I call them girlie men. They should get back to the table, and they should finish the budget."

That was on Saturday. The following day, further to the north at a Stockton mall, Schwarzenegger declared that special interests were dug in at the state Capitol "like Alabama ticks, and we cannot get rid of them"--"Alabama ticks" being a metaphor first uttered by Jesse Ventura in Predator (Schwarzenegger also went buggy last month, using the same words to describe the difficulty in getting more money from Washington).

And how did the Democrats in Sacramento react to the Arnold's def comedy jam?

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez called the whole thing "not funny, and beneath the governor."

"This type of third-grade insult only clarifies that the governor has lost his balance and is seemingly unable to stay focused on the issues of the budget to date," claimed San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno. "By playing to certain voters' discomfort with gender and sexuality, the governor has exposed himself to be a divider, not a uniter."

"It's really painful to hear the governor resort to such blatant homophobia," said Democratic state senator Sheila Kuehl, who along with Leno belongs to the legislature's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus. "It's an old-fashioned way of talking about gay men as to indicate they're not as strong. So that part is really painful. And I have to say it's really surprising. It's like he can't get his way so he resorts to some kind of name-calling."

(For the record: "girlie men" doesn't belong to Schwarzenegger; it belongs to Arnold-wannabes "Hans and Franz" of Saturday Night Live fame.)

SO WHY THE SUDDEN script change in a town which, for the past eight months anyway, has been a romantic comedy between the former action hero and his Democratic friends?

Part of the explanation is that Schwarzenegger, whose favorite mantra is "action, action, action", is fed up with waiting for a deal. He wanted a budget by July 1, only to discover that the legislature moves to its own beat, and its own calendar. Democrats will only sign off on a final spending plan once they've wrung enough concessions out of the Schwarzenegger administration. Since most Californians don't feel the effects of a late budget--parks don't close, bridges don't shut down--Democrats don't fear the deadline.

A second explanation would be that Schwarzenegger is at last experiencing the entrenched mentality of the liberals in control of the legislative branch. One of the budget impasses involves the repeal of a two-year-old law that requires all school district bus drivers--public and private--to be paid union-scale wages. Schwarzenegger apparently has found common ground on that issue: Schools will be allowed to contract out services, but workers benefits and wages would also be protected. Meanwhile, Democrats refuse to budget on a second labor matter: Schwarzenegger's desire to repeal a law, signed in the last days of Gray Davis's administration, allowing workers to take their employers to court over labor code violations. Democrats cite worker safety; Schwarzenegger is talking frivolous lawsuits.

Yet another theory: Schwarzenegger dialed up the rhetoric because he has time on his side--for another week, at least. On July 28, the state is expected to make its first payments of the fiscal year to schools and community colleges. Democratic lawmakers would hate to miss that deadline--almost as much as they'd hate to miss the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which would be in its third day by then. And if that occurs, some Democrats promise to return the favor, and keep Schwarzenegger from going to the Republican convention, where he's scheduled to give a prime-time address on Tuesday, August 31. The impasse could last that long if matters aren't settled in the next few days.