BACK FROM HIS ORATORICAL tour de force at the Republican National Convention, Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to devote the remainder of September to business as usual in Sacramento.
For California's chief executive, that means the usual silliness that goes with being America's most celebrated celebrity/politician. After settling a lawsuit to stop the sale of a Governator bobblehead clad in a business suit and sporting an assault rife and cartridge belt, Schwarzenegger may have to return to court to terminate yet another likeness--a "Girlie Man" doll in a pink dress and matching heels.
Then there is relative silliness of the 800-or-so pieces of legislation currently awaiting Schwarzenegger's action. This post-Labor Day ritual is known as "bill-signing"--the 30-day period for a California governor to approve or veto measures forwarded by the state legislature. Each year, it's a tremendous opportunity for the governor's office to reward friends, punish rivals, and make all kinds of news. This year, it's taken on an added dimension as a chance to learn more about Schwarzenegger's beliefs.
What have Arnold-watchers learned so far? With regard to two contentious issues--gays and guns--the man's as moderate as advertised. Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring Californian insurers to provide the same health benefits to same-sex registered partners as married couples. On the same day the federal assault weapon ban expired, Schwarzenegger approved a measure adding .50-caliber BMG rifles to his state's list of assault weapons, while also banning the sale of .50 BMG ammunition.
Then, in an intersection of politics and cinema, the former action star who's--all but impossible to avoid on premium movie channels--approved a measure with heavy HBO overtones: Six Feet Under fans might be amused to learn that Schwarzenegger approved a law making it illegal in California to have sex with a corpse (up to eight years in prison). The anti-necrophilia measure had died in a previous session, but sprang back to life after the unsuccessful prosecution of a man found in a San Francisco funeral home drunk and passed out on top of an elderly woman's corpse.
Otherwise, as far as the remainder of bill-signing is concerned, it's the California conundrum: everyone knows Arnold Schwarzenegger's personality, but few can safely forecast his political persona--whether he'll venture to the left or the right on any given issue. In theory, bill-signing should end some of the mystery. Schwarzenegger will find it hard to compromise and cut deals. On most occasions, he'll have to choose sides on legislation--in doing so, further defining his governorship.
And thanks to his friends in the legislature, he won't lack for opportunities. That includes:
Minimum wage. Democratic lawmakers have called for boosting California's minimum wage by $1 per hour over the next two years, from $6.75 to $7.75.
Outsourcing. In all, the legislature passed nine bills seeking to punish California firms that send jobs overseas.
"Big-box" retailers. As Wal-Mart makes inroads into California's economy, the legislature wants to mandate economic impact studies to be performed before a "big-box" retailer is allowed into a community.
Drivers licenses. Under the legislature's plan, illegal immigrants would get a driver's license (the license itself wouldn't denote legal status, which will be part of Schwarzenegger's rationale for vetoing it).
Food stamps. California Democrats want to override a federal rule that bans food stamp use by felony drug convicts, and end California's anti-fraud practice of fingerprinting welfare and food stamp recipients.
Prescription drugs. Schwarzenegger must decide whether to allow a state-run website to help Californians buy prescription drugs from Canada, and if CalPERS (the state employees' retirement system) can launch a purchasing pool for prescription drugs.
The guess here: because common sense and business sense is his compass, Schwarzenegger for the most part will venture to the right, especially on economic matters. Just take a look at where he stands on California's November initiatives. Although Schwarzenegger has gone out of his way to be best buddies with state Senate president John Burton, a cantankerous Bay area liberal and the most powerful man in the legislature, he opposes Proposition 72. (Burton's plan to require California businesses with 50-or-more employees to provide health insurance to their workers.) Schwarzenegger likes to tout his green credentials and talk up hydrogen-cell-powered Humvees. Still, he supports Proposition 64 and a limit on lawsuits against businesses, even though the initiative has drawn fire from California environmentalists.
A MORE INTRIGUING QUESTION is where Arnold Schwarzenegger, political animal, stands on two bills which have California animals lovers pumped up. Will he grant legal pet status to ferrets, banned in the state since 1933? And what will he do about a legislative ploy to outlaw foie gras produced in California by "speed-feeding" (that's grain force-fed down geese and ducks' throats to enlarge their livers)?
California's past handling of the ferrets is what one might expect from somewhat weasely politicians. Ferrets are outlawed, yet Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Gray Davis, signed a law two years ago making it legal for California veterinarians and their employees to see and treat the critters without fear of prosecution from the state's Department of Fish & Game. Meanwhile, the state turns a blind eye to pet shops that deal in ferret paraphernalia: ferret hammocks and, you guessed it, ferret shampoo.
As for the foie gras controversy, at stake is imposing economic hardship on a single company, Sonoma Foie Gras, which is California's sole foie gras producer. The business would receive a $1,000 fine per each bird found with a hyper-fattened liver. Here's where the plot thickens: The bill's sponsor just happens to be the aforementioned Sen. Burton, who championed similar legislation when he was a congressman. "You don't need to be cramming food down Donald Duck's throat to have foie gras," Burton told reporters, calling speed-feeding "an inhumane way to be dealing with our fine feathered friends."
So where does this leave the governor? As the champion of the immigrant dream, he could reach out to the 160,000-500,000 ferrets who await their California amnesty card (under the proposed law, ferret owners would have to spend $75 on such a card, plus offer proof that the pet has been neutered and is rabies-free). Maybe he'll be swayed by his own life experience : in Kindergarten Cop, Schwarzenegger's character had a pet ferret.
Foie gras is more complicated. Schwarzenegger may come down on the side of California's industrial competitiveness, or he could rankle conservatives by leaving it to high-end restaurants to import the delicacy from (of all places) France. And the governor might want to make it a parting gift for Burton, who's leaving office this fall, and make up for the hard feelings over Proposition 72.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.