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California: trendsetter or 'rogue state'?

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If the Bush administration is serious about bringing "rogue states" into line, perhaps it should start with California.

At a time when few states are moving in directions radically at odds with Washington, the Golden State has forged a different – and often combative – policy line on virtually every issue but national security.

Last week alone, Gov. Gray Davis defied President Bush by supporting expanded stem-cell research and infuriated Beltway tax cutters with a new payroll tax to fund the nation's most comprehensive paid-leave program. This legislative session the state has expanded abortion rights, agreed to regulate greenhouse gases, and boosted solar and wind power – all in opposition to expressed Bush administration wishes.

Even for California, long a leader of social and economic reforms, the number of ground- breaking bills is unusual. And their tenor is causing as much of a stir as their content. Not since the 1970s has America's most influential state been so out of step with the mood in Washington.

The obvious reason for the split is a matter of political calculus: While a conservative president sets the agenda in the capital, Democrats here hold almost every major elected office and significant majorities in the statehouse. Behind that, however, is a simmering feud as California chafes under a chief executive who – seeing the state as a lost cause in the 2004 election – has largely ignored it.

As a result, California has established itself as a counterweight to Washington – a political foil with a liberal vision of America's future.

"When a Democrat was in the White House, there was less interest in jumping out ahead," says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute in San Francisco. "Now, the California legislature is going out of its way to draw a distinction between ... Washington and Sacramento."

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