To Sign or Not Sign, That Is the Question

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The autumnal equinox is often marked in Sacramento by the state's chief executive signing or vetoing hundreds of bills submitted by the Legislature.

This season is no diffferent. Or... is it?

Governor Schwarzenegger's decision this morning to sign legislation ensuring continued health care coverage for children of low-income families was no surprise. AB 1422 was a compromise fix to the dilemma created by a budget deficit and the governor's decision this summer to line-item veto about $50 million from the Healthy Families program. The governor's staff had initially planned a formal signing ceremony two weeks ago tomorrow, just before the end of the legislative session. So why the delay?

Ahh, politics. The ceremony was shelved as Schwarzenegger and legislators engaged in a bit of political sniping about whether the final days of the legislative session were being spent productively. And when the governor threatened to veto all 72 bills on his desk on September 8 -- because big issues like a state water fix were unresolved -- legislative leaders yanked the bills back.

All except one: a seemingly simple measure honoring Vietnam vets, AB 264 by Assemblymember Paul Cook (D-Yucca Valley). Simple or not, Schwarzenegger made good on his threat, vetoed the bill, and everyone blamed everyone.

Today's bill signing was the first since that dustup. As for Assemblymember Cook's "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day," Schwarzenegger has now scheduled a signing ceremony for the bill later this week in southern California.

But does that mean the bill blockade is over? Let's face it: since Schwarzenegger's initial demand for substantive policy action, not much has changed. True, the Legislature did act on two of the three big policy issues under discussion when the Great Veto Showdown of 2009 commenced. But even the two that won legislative approval -- prison reform and renewable energy expansion -- seem to have fallen short. The prison proposal, as we've reported several times, was far smaller than needed to solve either legal or budgetary problems; and the renewable energy plan, while meeting the governor's demands in a macro sense, is slated for a veto based on the details of how those energy goals would be met. (By the way, it appears Schwarzenegger has not yet actually vetoed the legislative renewable energy plan.) As for water... everyone's still squabbling over the details, including how to pay for water supply fixes.

So has Schwarzenegger's September 8 proclamation of 'solve the big stuff before I even consider everything else' now history?

"He will weigh (the other bills) on their merits," said McLear in today's weekly press corps briefing. McLear says 317 bills now 'sit' on the Guv's desk, with several hundred more en route once the archaic process that moves them from one branch of government to the other is complete.

Last year, a similar but different fight erupted over policy bills being given the collective stiff arm in September. This year, Schwarzenegger has a bit longer to make his decisions. But barring a legislative veto override (a rarity in California), Schwarzenegger has the final say on how this all plays out... and whether legislators can be prodded towards compromise on a big, thorny issue by the threat of shredding hundreds of other proposals with no nexus to the political battle at hand.

UPDATE: The governor's office says the renewable energy bills crafted by Democrats have not yet landed on the big guy's desk... hence, the delay in a veto. Also, while some online folks have speculated that this posting suggests the veto threat is over... there's no evidence to prove that. And so the watching will continue. --JM

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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