The autumns of odd-numbered years are supposed to be political lulls in California; the legislature has departed Sacramento for the year, there are no elections on tap, and those in and around the Capitol can relax for a few weeks, waiting for the games to resume in January.

It hasn't worked out that way for quite a while. California was treated - if that's the right word - to a circus-like recall campaign that unseated then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Two years later, his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was getting his clock cleaned in a special ballot measure election that consumed tens of millions of dollars in television ads.

This had promised to be the first autumnal respite from political squabbling since 2001, but as it's shaping up, it's more like politics as usual.

First, Schwarzenegger and legislators decided to jump the presidential primary election from June to February on their assertion that it would make California more relevant in the presidential nominating process, although the real reason had more to do with passing a ballot measure to ease up on legislative term limits.

Nevertheless, we've got to put up with presidential hopefuls pretending to campaign in California while sucking up millions of dollars that will, for the most part, be spent in other states that have jumped their primaries ahead of California.

That's just a minor distraction, however. The bigger one is that Schwarzenegger decided to call special legislative sessions on health care and water after the regular session ended in September without resolution of either long-standing conundrum.

The special sessions aren't progressing any further on either issue, it would appear. But their existence has generated some off-season Sturm und Drang, including a big flap over Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's personal lifestyle and finances. The Los Angeles Times revealed that Nunez has been spending lavishly from his campaign accounts for travel and gifts, and The Sacramento Bee reported that as the health care debate heated up, an adjunct of the California Hospital Association gave Nunez's wife a job that apparently carries a six-figure salary.

The revelations provided fodder for the campaign against the term-limits measure Nunez wants voters to approve in February and for those on his left who have opposed his version of health care reform.

This week, unions launched a media campaign to denounce Schwarzenegger for including an individual mandate to carry health insurance - but its real target may have been Nunez, a warning to stand firm against the individual mandate that unions and consumer groups see as a giveaway to health insurers and employers, and perhaps even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has such a mandate in her health scheme, which is similar in thrust to Schwarzenegger's.

The California Nurses Association, the most militant advocate for single-payer health insurance and a fierce foe of the hospital industry, hit Nunez the hardest over his wife's job, with a spokeswoman saying, "Speaker Nunez has a clear conflict of interest. Life and death issues involving California hospital patients come before the legislature every year. Californians can no longer trust that he will represent the public interest and not the financial interest of a large industry that has put his wife on their payroll."

Nunez has handled the revelations and criticism about his lifestyle and his wife's job poorly. Even if Nunez's argument that his campaign account spending is legal and proper is technically correct, it looks bad, and his wife's employment raises legitimate questions about conflict of interest, especially when the Nunez family apparently needs the extra income to pay for the $1.25 million home it has purchased in an upscale suburb of Sacramento.

ABOUT THE WRITER Dan Walters writes about state politics for the Sacramento Bee. Write him at dwalters@sacbee.com.