Of Compromises and Crises

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The buzz around the state Capitol grows louder this afternoon that a deal is close at hand on a $26.3 billion solution to California's gaping budget deficit.

Of course, it ain't over 'til it's over... which means a likely long day for negotiators and those of us left in the Capitol press corps.

The details of a deal remain elusive -- perhaps because the deal isn't cooked, but also perhaps a sign of how ugly it will be once all is said and done. It's no secret that the three most contentious issues have been, in no particular order: public school funding levels, Governor Schwarzenegger's demands for systemic changes to several social services programs, and proposals to take billions of dollars from local governments.

Those are thorny issues, though some believe one of the most flashy -- reductions to public schools -- may already be resolved.

Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders are meeting at this hour in hopes of sealing the deal, and the Guv remained coy about the prospects in comments to reporters this afternoon.

"I think that we have a good shot of getting the budget done today," he said, "but there are still, I have to just caution, there are still some very important things that are not resolved."

One item that apparently has been resolved... by, ahem, not resolving it... is Schwarzenegger's proposals to change the pension system for public employees. The governor confirmed today reports that he's set the issue aside for now, no longer linking it to a deal on the immediate deficit.

The moving parts of any deal will take some time to examine... but pay particular attention to the education and local government items; those alone could account for some $6 billion in solutions.

(For the true junkies, look for Twitter updates through the evening.)

Meantime, the larger crisis in California governance has been the focus this week of a special series by our colleagues at National Public Radio. The multi-part series has examined everything from the rise of ballot-box budgeting to the crisis in education, prisons, and beyond.

This afternoon, NPR's series turns to a piece I contributed on the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger since he took the reins in 2003. Below is a related version that ran this morning on The California Report.

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I spoke with several folks who were around for the beginning of the Schwarzenegger era, and who could step back and evaluate the governor beginning with his campaign promises to clean up the state's fiscal mess. Two perspectives are worth mentioning.

Rob Stutzman, the governor's former communications czar and now an adviser to another gubernatorial hopeful, laid out an interesting dilemma he calls the 'Arnold Paradox.'

"They (voters) wanted the Terminator," he said, "but at the same time they just wanted things to work in Sacramento so they didn’t have to hear about it every night on the news." Stutzman says that contradiction -- fighter and compromiser -- would be almost impossible for anyone to pull off.

Still, the Republican politico admits that some of the governor's problems with budget issues are self-inflicted. After the 2005 special election defear, Stutzman says Schwarzenegger changed course. "His reaction to that was not to stay the course of reform," he says, "but was to basically throw in with those (labor union) forces and spend money."

Meanwhile, a former moderate legislator says he thinks Schwarzenegger may have miscalculated the challenge. Democrat Joe Canciamilla says he met privately with the GOP governor-elect just after the 2003 recall, and urged him to not work with the same political establishment that got the state into the mess in the first place. But Canciamilla believes the governor, even when playing the role of the outsider, still played the game by the same rules.

"The governor was underestimating the power of this political industrial complex that exists in Sacramento," says Canciamilla, "and was overestimating his ability to overcome it by the sheer force of his personality and his persona."

To be fair, the governor does still have time left, a full 18 months before anyone can truly right the story of his legacy. But it's clear that the public is frustrated these days... in many instances, as frustrated as they seemed when they hired Schwarzenegger in 2003.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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