In ruling that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has emergency powers to order furloughs for state workers, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette said, “The current circumstances constitute an emergency.”

With the state teetering on the financial precipice, soon unable to pay bills, the judge apparently equated California’s situation to any natural disaster that might hit the state.

The Governor sees it the same way. Recently, Schwarzenegger said he views our fiscal emergency like he would view an earthquake. It’s a crisis of the moment that demands immediate attention.

Now that we have a judge agreeing that the governor has extraordinary powers to confront this fiscal crisis, the question is: How far can the governor take this emergency power?

For example, could the governor declare that the finances of the state need a boost by getting infrastructure projects started immediately? The governor has talked of easing CEQA and other environmental regulations to expedite the start of construction. Now that we have a court certified emergency on our hands, can the governor call on those emergency powers, suspend or ease the regulations on his own, and order the work to begin?

Don’t be surprised that Schwarzenegger compares California’s current fiscal disaster to an earthquake. The governor may be paving the way to use gubernatorial emergency powers much like Governor Pete Wilson did after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Wilson responded to the devastation of the earthquake by exercising emergency powers to get Los Angeles up and running again in spectacular fashion.

Interstate 10 running East and West through the heart of Los Angeles, the busiest freeway in the world, had collapsed. Experts said rebuilding the freeway would take two years. Using emergency powers to suspend statutes and regulations and offering incentives to builders, Wilson saw the freeway repair completed in two months.

Drawing on his experience dealing with the earthquake aftermath, Wilson wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal after the Katrina disaster, offering advice on how to rebuild the city of New Orleans quickly. In the article, Wilson described his actions after the Northridge earthquake:

First, I quickly exercised the extraordinary emergency powers conferred on the governor of California by the state Government Code. I suspended the operation of statutes and regulations that would have required the protracted public hearings called for before environmental impact reports could be filed and acted upon, and suspended other normally demanded procedural hurdles. Eliminating these legal requirements drastically reduced purposeless delays that would have impeded recovery and compounded the injury inflicted by the quake.

Can our current governor use the emergency powers to put a stimulus package in place and get people working on infrastructure projects immediately? Can he make unilateral cuts in any number of programs to save budget dollars at least until the emergency passes?

How much authority did Schwarzenegger gain by yesterday’s ruling which declared that, “The current circumstances constitute an emergency?”

I imagine the Governor’s legal staff is examining his emergency power options as you read this.