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Trouble in Paradise

The Governator takes his first lumps.

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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THERE WAS A TIME when political winds flowed west to east across America. But this summer in California, the breeze blows the opposite way, with politicians here playing by East Coast rules.

In Sacramento, as in the nation's capital, Democrats seek to undermine Republican rule by talking ethics and conspiracies. Only, California Democrats are smarter than their beltway cousins. They're not wasting their time with personal attacks against presidential personnel. Instead, the target is the man at the top, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At present, two controversies envelop Sacramento, neither to be confused with a serious policy debate.

The first is a stink over a disclosure that the Governator was earning a minimum of $1 million a year in outside income--as much as $13 million over five years--as an editorial consultant to a pair of bodybuilding magazines, Flex and Muscle & Fitness. The magazines rely on advertising from dietary supplements makers. Last year, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have cracked down on the supplements industry. It didn't take long for Democrats to play connect the dots and suggest that the governor was on the take.

Although Schwarzenegger soon ended the deal (without returning the money he'd already received), it didn't stop the Democrats from filing a complaint with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, accusing the Governator of accepting illegal gifts and violating conflict-of-interest rules. Also filing a complaint: the parents of a 24-year-old who three years ago committed suicide after taking steroids. They think there's a link between steroids and dietary supplements, and have threatened to sue Schwarzenegger if he doesn't return his magazine proceeds.

The second controversy doesn't pertain to what Schwarzenegger did. Rather, it's what he wants to do: pass Proposition 77, which, if approved this November, would make California's redistricting process non-legislative--not a popular idea within the predominately Democratic legislature--by turning over control to a panel of retired judges.

First, State Attorney Bill Lockyer went to court to get the initiative removed from the November special ballot. Lockyer's contention: The version of Prop 77 that he reviewed wasn't the same as the one used for public signature-gathering. Technically, Lockyer has a point. He's also splitting hairs, as the 11 discrepancies in question are picayune at best. For example, the petition that voters signed gives lawmakers five days to pick a judicial panel; Lockyer's version said six days. There doesn't appear to be an effort to deliberately mislead voters.

It's not the first time that Lockyer, a liberal Democrat who's running for state treasurer next year, has played fast and loose with the initiative process. As the attorney general, his job is to write impartial title and ballot summaries. But that's not always been the case. The summary for another of Schwarzenegger's initiatives in this fall's special election--Proposition 76, the "Live within Our Means Act," which would enable the governor to make spending cuts when the state budget goes into the red--says little about tighter purse strings. Instead, it reads:

Changes state minimum school funding requirements . . . permitting suspension of minimum funding, but terminating repayment requirement, and eliminating authority to reduce funding when state revenues decrease. Excludes above-minimum appropriations from schools' funding base.

Other examples of Lockyer's whole-language approach include Proposition 38, a school voucher initiative which lost badly in November 2000. He gave it this ominous-sounding description: "public funding of private and religious schools." The same year's Proposition 22, California's Defense of Marriage Act, was re-titled "Limits on Marriage" instead of its original "Definition of Marriage." Earlier this year, Lockyer helped chase away another initiative Democrats loathed--public pension reform--by misleadingly claiming in his summary that the measure would eliminate orphan and widow death benefits for police and firefighters.

Still, it's the AG's willingness to do his party's bidding in court--in the process, taking on California's Republican secretary of State, who refuses to take Prop 77 off the ballot--is evidence of partisan shenanigans breezing out west. That, and the Democrats' insistence that the initiative's errata are part of a larger Republican cabal. The fact that the initiative's legal team talked to the governor's legal office before the error became public is seen as grounds by Democrats to pose the question, "What did the governor know and when did he know it?"