Commentary: Limits of Schwarzenegger's power are the real issue

Arnold Schwarzenegger was born and reared in post-World War II Austria as it cast off its Nazi past and established a democracy.

When Austria created its governmental structure in the late 1940s, it emulated most other European democracies, vesting power in a prime minister who headed the majority party or coalition in parliament, and thus could make policy more or less by decree.

The parliamentary system contrasts with the American system's independently elected and co-equal executive and legislative branches — one that California adopted when it became a state 160 years ago this month. And California diffused authority even more, creating separately elected heads of major agencies, such as the attorney general, and giving voters direct power to legislate.

This political history lesson is a backdrop for Schwarzenegger's seven-year struggle to move California from a democracy on steroids — where authority and accountability are so diffused as to become invisible — to something closer to a parliamentary system whose executive can act decisively.

Although he's come close, Schwarzenegger has never explicitly laid out that goal. But the thrust of what he calls "reform" has been implicitly clear — shifting more authority to the governor while placing the legislative branch and separately elected officials in subsidiary positions.

It's rooted not only in his Austrian origins but in former Gov. Pete Wilson's tutoring. Wilson advocated expanded gubernatorial authority and wielded it as much as he could, often declaring emergencies and ruling by executive decree. One example: He suspended regulations to quickly rebuild the vital Santa Monica Freeway after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

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