SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will likely veto it — if it even reaches his desk. Republicans think it's a great political cudgel for them to attack Democrats with in the wake of congressional health care reform setbacks. So, why are legislative Democrats pushing forward with single-payer health care legislation?

It's to lay the foundation for what could be an epic ballot battle two or four years from now, said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, the author of Senate Bill 810, which was approved this week by the Senate.

"Given all the misinformation that's been out there, a significant education effort is needed," Leno said. "We've seen the power of the special interests; the health care industry has a death grip on Washington, D.C. To the degree we don't get true reform on the national level, there's a greater need for there to be leadership in state legislatures."

His proposal would provide coverage to every California resident under a single government-administered program at a cost of more than $200 billion annually — a cost Leno says already exists in today's system. The plan would rely on existing state and federal money and higher payroll taxes, along with savings from cutting out insurance companies' administrative costs and profits.

A commission would lay out details of the funding plan, which voters ultimately would have to approve.

Republican lawmakers immediately targeted the $200 billion cost as a burden to be shouldered solely by taxpayers — which Leno disputes — and accused Democrats of failing to heed the message sent by voters of Massachusetts, who elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat that the late Democrat Edward Kennedy held since 1962.

"California Democrats continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to what's playing out on the national stage," said Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno.

Whether Republicans have the upper hand on health care reform is debatable, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State.

"They shouldn't overblow the vote of Massachusetts because there were lots of variables there," she said. "It wasn't just health care that drove that election."

Instead, she said, it was disaffection from the left, which wanted President Barack Obama to seek a more aggressive public option to his health care reform, combined with the anger from independents, who wanted Obama to focus on jobs, that allowed Republicans to capture that seat.

But legislative votes on universal health care coverage could leave moderate Democratic lawmakers in swing districts vulnerable to attack in the November election, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant, who supports a single-payer system but says reform must come in increments.

"It's very risky — not only because of the national mood on health care but because of the fiscal condition of the state," Maviglio said. "It's almost impossible to communicate in a campaign why you voted for something that costs billions. When the state's fiscal ship is righted, then it's the time to think about it."

The legislation will likely not get taken up in the Assembly Health committee until June at the earliest and may never come up for a vote, depending on what political calculation is made by incoming Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, some Democrats said.

The issue, however, may be difficult for Democrats to avoid in the upcoming gubernatorial race. Already, Republicans have hinted they will make an issue of presumptive Democratic nominee Jerry Brown's embrace of single-payer health care as a presidential candidate in 1992.

Brown has taken an aggressive posture against the health care industry, ordering a Department of Justice investigation of the state's five largest health insurers' practice of denying coverage.

"These high denial rates suggest a system that is dysfunctional, and the public is entitled to know whether wrongful business practices are involved," Brown said when he announced the probe in September.

Polls show that voters are growing increasingly frustrated or worried about California's health care system. But the support for a single-payer system is divided sharply along partisan lines, while independents are also split, said Mark Baldassare, CEO and president of Public Policy Institute of California.

That would make the task that much greater for a ballot measure campaign that would likely draw hundreds of millions from the health care industry determined to stop reform in its tracks.

But the debate is worth it, said Chuck Idelson, spokesman for the California Nurses Association, which advocates for single payer health care.

"It's not as if the problems of health care are going away any time soon," he said. "We know it will continue to get worse until we address the fundamental problem in which the focus of our health care system is not care delivery or access to care but on profits and returns for shareholders."

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.