Saturday, December 5, 2009




The biggest challenge facing Democrats who dominate California’s legislature as they look ahead to a short December session will be this: Do they really want another big rumble with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Already this year, they’ve sued the governor for allegedly seizing veto powers that don’t belong to him, faced him down over cuts to health care for poor children and defied his threats to veto every potential new law that came before him if they didn’t do as he ordered and sign a package of water bills they felt were not yet ready for prime time.

Now that he’s named Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado to fill the lieutenant governor’s job vacated when Democrat John Garamendi won election to Congress, the question is how much energy and political capital Democrats are willing to spend on going to the mat with Schwarzenegger again.

This is an appointment that normally would be considered a ho-hum item. There’s a reason why the nominally No. 2 official in California is often called the “lite governor.” The job has few responsibilities, little staff and only a few who have held it were able to move up into the real governor’s office. By appointing Maldonado, Schwarzenegger carefully avoided giving a leg up to any of the half-dozen or so candidates vying to win the job in next year’s election – but may have boosted the statewide ambitions of Maldonado, whose past compromises with Democrats make it unlikely he could otherwise win a Republican primary election.

Despite its shortcomings, Garamendi made his former job a good bit more influential than it usually is, using its automatic places on the state Lands Commission and the governing boards of California’s two big university systems.

As a University of California regent, for example, he fought to avoid raising tuition and fees and helped keep them from going even higher than they have. No sooner was he in Congress than remaining regents approved a 32 percent tuition-and-fee increase with little dissent except from students.

But it was at the Lands Commission where he did most with the job. In 2007, just months after becoming lieutenant governor, Garamendi became the key figure as the Lands Commission thwarted a plan to build a large floating liquefied natural gas import terminal off the Ventura County coast. Schwarzenegger ardently backed that plan, but could do nothing for it once the Garamendi-led commission nixed the idea of running big gas pipelines across state beaches and tidelands.

This year, Garamendi and Democratic state Controller John Chiang, also an automatic Lands Commission member, outvoted Schwarzenegger’s representative on the commission and refused to okay a plan allowing new slant oil drilling under state tidelands off northern Santa Barbara County from an existing oil platform.

Schwarzenegger had figured pumping the oil would give the state more than $150 million a year in new revenue from leasing fees (the state has no extraction tax), but the Lands Commission felt environmental threats in the sensitive area were too great.

The governor responded with a bill carried by Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Orange County that would have removed this issue, and only this issue, from Lands Commission jurisdiction. His measure went nowhere.

Before Schwarzenegger nominated Maldonado, the leading legislative foe of the slant drilling plan vowed to prevent any new lieutenant governor from boosting either offshore oil development or LNG.

“That won’t happen,” warned Democratic Assemblyman Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara County, a leading oil-drilling opponent in the Legislature and also a candidate for state attorney general, before the appointment. “We have to do what we can to make this a litmus test. Unless this appointee promises never to okay this project, I’m sure the members of the Assembly who understand how dangerous this is will vote not to confirm. We will grill the appointee and fry him and filet him and roast him on this. An appointee can always go back on his word, but if you break your promises, you can essentially end your career.”

Maldonado, a mild opponent of the slant drilling plan who also voted for a 2005 bill (vetoed by Schwarzenegger) aiming to make it harder to build LNG receiving terminals, defuses all that. Especially if he promises during hearings on his appointment to act consistently with his past votes. Which means that despite talk of the costs involved in holding a special election to replace Maldonado if he’s confirmed, the main reason Democrats would have for killing this nomination is that it would give a statewide office to a Republican.

The question for legislative Democrats, then, is whether they’re willing to stage a major battle over those limited stakes when they know far more portentous fights are in the offing in this cash-strapped state.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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