Veteran California agricultural lobbyist and Hanford, Calif., dairyman George Soares sounds a bit more optimist about the state of politics in Sacramento than he has in recent years with the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Giving his annual state of politics address to the California Cotton Growers Association, Soares said California remains in debt, but not as much as it once was; the legislature is still liberal; horrific workers compensation costs continue to bleed the state’s economy and its No. 1 industry, agriculture; and environmental laws and regulations are not going to get any less onerous.

Nevertheless, Soares admits that with Schwarzenegger replacing Gray Davis, California has a governor like none before. When a movie star moves into politics, the question is always will that star power translated into an effective political leader.

To that, Soares says Schwarzenegger has "gotten people’s attention." His popularity has not waned since his successful ascension in a recall to the governorship of the nation’s most populous and richest state. He followed that up with passage of Proposition 57 and 58 in March. Soares said overwhelming approval of the two budget bailout measures was tied directly to Schwarzenegger’s popularity and power. Some said he campaigned harder for the propositions to reduce the state’s debt and force the legislature to forever balance the state budget than he did when he ran for governor.

Schwarzenegger is unquestionably pro-business, but Soares said the governor’s positioning is also a "rainbow" of politics and opinions because he is also pro-environment. Soares said Schwarzenegger believe he can be both.

Government reform

The new governor also believes he can reform government and has appointed a 150-person to see if state government can be streamlined and still do its job.

Schwarzenegger is not a sideline sitter when it comes to engaging in legislative politics. While his predecessor did little to engage the legislature on bills it was considering, waiting to make decisions on passage or vetoes when they reached Davis’ desk.

Schwarzenegger is very interactive with the state assembly and senate, said Soares. Any legislation that costs money is anti-business, and the new California governor promises it will be dead on arrival on his desk.

A petition drive is under way to put a workers compensation reform proposition on the November ballot. Schwarzenegger had given the legislature until March 1 to come up with meaningful reform, but he backed off that when progress was being made. However, many of the state’s agricultural groups are actively seeking signatures to get it on the fall ballot. It will take only 600,000 signatures to achieve that. Soares said he expect workers comp reformers to collect 1 million.

While the passage of Proposition 57 authorized a $15 billion refinance/bailout package for the state, California is still $7 billion in debt, said Soares. "There are billions still to be found," he said.

Schwarzenegger’s promise to reform government will not erase the oppressive set of environmental laws and regulations on water and air farmers are now facing.

Soares called the air quality laws passed in the 11th hour of the last legislative session "some of the worst legislation" he has seen in years. It has left government agencies "stumbling over each other" trying to deal with the new set of laws.

Although California made a major change in the top last October, Soares continues to warn that there is "still much to do — challenges are still there."

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com