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April 17, 2004
The Governator Wins Another One

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's new celebrity governor, continues to score big victories in California politics, this time by pushing through long-overdue reforms to the state's workers-comp program:

Despite enthusiasm from labor and business circles that was only muted, the final product was a significant political achievement, just the latest in what has become a growing list for Mr. Schwarzenegger. In the six months since ousting Gov. Gray Davis from office in a historic recall election, he has broken gridlock in Sacramento and delivered on a string of campaign promises, from rescinding drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants to reversing $4 billion in car tax increases to winning public approval of a state bond issue addressing the state's vast fiscal problems.

"Of course the first thing I heard when I came to Sacramento in November is that it can't be done, that it is impossible," Mr. Schwarzenegger said at the Capitol after both houses of the Legislature approved the workers'-compensation bill on Friday. "I'm trying to teach them slowly here that we should just get rid of these words `we can't' or `I can't.' Everything is possible."

The workers' compensation system in California is by far the costliest in the nation, with claims that ballooned to an estimated $30 billion last year from $6.5 billion in 1997. Yet its beneficiaries employees who are injured on the job and so are entitled to coverage of medical expenses and to compensation for lost wages receive some of the nation's lowest benefits. Business leaders, who finance the system, have complained that much of the money is going to lawyers and doctors who, the businesses say, perform unnecessary and duplicative procedures.

Despite what Arnold says, prior to his election, some of these changes were impossible. California's political culture had long stagnated into single-party rule, where the powerful state legislature routinely passed some of the nation's most radically socialist legislation, especially in workplace regulation. The workers-comp system represents the worst of the excess. Bloated beyond recognition and poorly written, with vague laws and requirements, business have been struggling under its weight for decades. Many who had the option to relocate elsewhere have already done so, undermining the state's economy and its rebound capacity.

The recall election has changed the political climate in the Golden State. California voters put everyone on notice that they expect change, and they're willing to go way out of their way to get it. Combine that with Schwarzenegger's star power and centrist policies, and the legislature suddenly has pronated itself to the executive -- a radical departure from years past, when Willie Brown as Speaker of the Assembly held the greater share of power.

Part of the change can be attributed to the natural reaction of legislators to let Arnold be Arnold and push all responsibility for the consequences onto his shoulders. But that doesn't account for the vote tallies on what looked to be an unpopular reform of a system that pandered to leftist special-interest groups, such as lawyers and unions. The combined vote in both houses was 110-6, leading the New York Times to make this observation:

Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is to sign the bill into law on Monday, had threatened to put the issue to a public referendum if the Legislature did not pass the measure by Friday. The Democratic majority, still unnerved by the recall of Mr. Davis, seemed in no mood to challenge the governor, and got the bill passed with five hours to spare.

Democrats may finally understand that the electorate has shifted well right of their policies, and a referendum on overhauling the workers-comp system would draw many voters to the polls that might be inclined to replace key Democratic legislators. For the first time in decades, the Republicans have the leverage to play power politics and someone in place who knows how and has the nerve to do play them.

Watch out in November: that combination may change California politics permanently.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 17, 2004 10:26 AM

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