FACT CHECK: Dealmaking common under Schwarzenegger

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In a widely reported national interview over the weekend, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson by saying the Democrat withheld his vote on health care legislation to get more money for his state.

The Republican governor sounded appalled at such political trade-offs when he characterized the health care vote to NBC’s David Gregory: “‘I’m holding out my vote, unless I get some extra kind of benefits here,'” Schwarzenegger said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I mean, if you do that in Sacramento, you know, you’ll be sued. It is illegal to do that, to buy votes.”

In fact, such political quid pro quos happen all the time in the state Capitol, sometimes with Schwarzenegger’s behind-the-scenes involvement.

Just in the past year, Schwarzenegger signed off on tax breaks, giveaways and a ballot measure that were brokered in back room dealings to secure enough votes for the state budget. The vote-sealing deals also have extended to other major pieces of legislation, including water bills that Schwarzenegger lobbied hard to pass.

“Horse trading, for better or worse, is part of the legislative process of compromise, and it’s a well-established tradition in Sacramento,” said Derek Cressman, the western states regional director for Common Cause. “Certainly, this process is not unusual.”

Nelson’s vote last month on the national health care overhaul was secured when the legislation freed Nebraska from paying the cost of Medicaid expansion. Schwarzenegger called that deal a “rip-off” for California and other states, which he said would end up subsidizing Nebraska’s poor.

Yet concessions of the type Schwarzenegger criticized have been given away to state lawmakers in California with regularity.

Last February, the governor signed a midyear state budget that included $70 million in additional property tax revenue over the next two fiscal years and $50 million each year after that for Orange County. The gift was added to secure the vote of Democratic Sen. Lou Correa of Anaheim.

At the same time, legislative leaders included a $10,000 tax credit on the purchase of new homes to win the support of Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield.

The final vote on the February budget came from Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria. He was persuaded to jump off the fence after lawmakers agreed to place a measure on this year’s ballot asking voters to change the election system to allow open primaries.

The change is important for moderate Republicans such as Maldonado who often find it difficult to win GOP primary elections, which are dominated by the party’s conservative wing. Schwarzenegger recently nominated Maldonado to fill the lieutenant governor’s position.

Such key negotiating points on the budget and other major pieces of legislation are worked out behind closed doors between Schwarzenegger and the top legislative leaders.

Cressman, of Common Cause, said it was disingenuous of Schwarzenegger to criticize the Nebraska senator for participating in the type of dealmaking that happens frequently in Sacramento.

“He’s a politician being a politician trying to make an argument work for him at the moment,” Cressman said.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear defended the California dealmaking, suggesting the ends justified the means.

“We believe that the end result of those methods was solving a $60 billion shortfall last year or achieving historic water reform that leaders have been trying to do for decades,” McLear said. “What our congressional delegation has allowed to happen with the health care bill does not improve things for California. It makes things worse.”

The $11.1 billion water bond Schwarzenegger signed last November is another example.

The legislation was stuffed with special interest earmarks at the last minute so it could win enough votes to pass the Legislature. In the final days of negotiations, lawmakers in both chambers padded the bond bill with nearly $2 billion in additional spending.

Some of those projects are only loosely related to issues of water supply and water quality. Schwarzenegger signed the legislation, anyway, calling it one of the Legislature’s “great, great accomplishments.”