For months, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and the Democrats who control the state legislature have avoided the partisan rancor that has gripped the state throughout its long-running financial crisis. They have cut compromise deals over policy and continually complimented each other's political style.
But Schwarzenegger changed his tone a few days ago. "I am the kindergarten cop,'' he told diners in a restaurant near Sacramento, referring to one of his films. "Nothing has changed because that's what I am in the Capitol still. I have 120 children.''
One stop later, at a pizza parlor, the governor took another verbal shot. "The state legislators,'' he said, "want to take the money away from you and rob you blind.''
So much for harmony. Schwarzenegger is now the star of an annual summer spectacle in California: a bitter political fight over the state's budget.
Weeks of intense negotiations over how to close a deficit of nearly $15 billion have reached an impasse. The budget is already late -- the fiscal year began July 1 -- and state Controller Steve Westly on Thursday warned of dire consequences if the breakdown in talks continues through July.
"That's when I will not be able to make major payments to community colleges and California schools,'' Westly said.
Schwarzenegger is attempting to close the deficit without raising taxes or making drastic cuts in social programs. Instead, he is asking the legislature to approve pacts he made with local governments and universities in recent months that would allow him to raid their budgets this year in exchange for guarantees that they will be spared from cuts in the future. He has persuaded Indian tribes that run gaming operations to give the state more revenue in exchange for more slot machines. And he wants to balance the state's $103 billion budget with more borrowing.
Some Democratic lawmakers say Schwarzenegger is resorting to the same kind of quick fixes predecessor Gray Davis (D) supported and is gambling that the state's improving economic climate will allow him to keep his fiscal promises next year. Some GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, say the governor is missing an opportunity to shrink the state government.
Budget talks broke down again Thursday evening. Schwarzenegger left the state Friday to fly to Austria, where he will attend the weekend funeral of Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who died Tuesday. President Bush asked Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native, to lead the U.S. delegation to the memorial services.
Negotiations are scheduled to resume when the governor returns Monday, but for some lawmakers his year-long charm offensive appears to be wearing off.
The biggest obstacle to reaching a budget agreement is a side deal that Schwarzenegger struck a few weeks ago with cities and counties. He wants to take nearly $3 billion from their coffers this year and next -- then bar the state from raiding their revenue, even in hard times.
After Democratic leaders objected, calling the open-ended promise financially risky, Schwarzenegger appeared to be receptive to a compromise. Local leaders erupted in anger. They are demanding that the state adopt a rule that would require four-fifths of the legislature to approve future cuts to their budgets. Many Democratic lawmakers say they are adamantly opposed.
"If we agree to that, the next thing we know the education community or the transportation community is going to come knocking on our doors,'' said Darrell Steinberg (D), chairman of the state Assembly's Budget Committee. "You're going to virtually lock down all aspects of government. It's just not a good precedent to set.''
Schwarzenegger has begun taking his case directly to voters. Polls show that he has become the most popular politician in California. But he needs Democratic votes to pass his plans -- and many of those lawmakers are vowing they will not meekly accept his budget demands.
Still, both sides say they are hopeful they can reach a deal before the state begins running out of money. Some Democratic lawmakers also say they are not bothered by Schwarzenegger's barbs.
"It's part of the ritual,'' Steinberg said.