Union Tribune

October 30, 2003

Turning the spotlight on state's need for aid
Schwarzenegger's visit to Capitol Hill focuses on disaster relief funds

By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Arnold Schwarzenegger brought an undeniable dash of Hollywood excitement to Capitol Hill yesterday, but the first visit to Washington by California's governor-elect had a more somber purpose than originally anticipated.

With so much of the state fighting wildfires, Schwarzenegger appealed for federal money to combat the disaster, and he would not rule out new taxes as a way to offset the huge cost of battling the blazes.

"We're still in the middle of the problem," he said when asked if the fires constituted the type of "disaster" he has said might persuade him to rethink his "no new taxes" pledge.

"I think we should let it play out and come up with the ideas of how we can solve the problem and . . . how much we need to pay for (the fires). Right now, we don't have to make the decision."

Veteran Capitol Hill lawmakers credited the incoming Republican governor in part with persuading Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to set up at least six "one-stop" disaster centers in California that will offer services from 13 government agencies and from insurance companies.

"I'm sure the governor-elect helped," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who with outgoing Gov. Gray Davis had also urged the agency to go beyond the single center it had planned on opening.

Foreign heads of state and sometimes even U.S. presidents don't get the kind of attention Schwarzenegger did yesterday as he met with congressional leaders, budget writers, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

At a weekly meeting of House Republicans that typically draws only about 140 lawmakers, nearly all of the House's 229 Republicans showed up, some bringing cameras. They gave the governor-elect a standing ovation. Everywhere he went, he was followed by staffers, security personnel, lawmakers, news cameras and reporters.

"Arnold has star power," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach. "If there's anybody who can pry loose money out of a federal budget this tight, it's someone with the political power . . . of Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Schwarzenegger vowed during his campaign to get more federal money for California. But the federal government is running a $374 billion budget deficit and is facing huge bills for homeland security and for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What the state needs is $20 billion or so to solve its fiscal crisis, and it's not going to get that in some lump sum from the federal government," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California Berkeley. "What he will get, possibly, is aid in specific categories, and of course, the thing that's now jumped right to the head of the queue is aid for fire victims."

Schwarzenegger began his visit by meeting with FEMA director Michael Brown. The costs of battling the fires and of reconstruction will be thrust to the top of Schwarzenegger's agenda when he takes office next month. He is already facing a projected $8 billion state budget deficit, and that's on top of state plans to sell more than $10 billion in deficit bonds.

"The huge, disastrous fires have changed my mission a little bit," Schwarzenegger said. "I'm now looking for federal money for the people, the victims of the fire."

House and Senate budget officials agreed to spend $500 million to help fight the fires and rebuild communities.

Schwarzenegger met with California Democratic Sens. Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and pledged to work with Feinstein to extend her federal assault weapons ban, which expires this year. He also said he had no hard feelings against Feinstein for campaigning against him or appearing in TV ads reminding voters about allegations that he groped women without their consent.

"You have to understand the way it works in politics she's not going to come out and cut a commercial for me," Schwarzenegger said. "We will be working together like a jewel."

Said Feinstein: "What's past is past. I think we have to . . . turn the page and move on."