December 4, 2005
Gray Davis Redux
By Debra Saunders

There's this thing that happens when politicians lose an election: They don't become introspective and try to figure out where they went wrong. Instead, they blame their staff, and heads roll.

Is that what's going on with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger? The four initiatives he supported in the November election tanked. Last week, the Republican governor announced that Chief of Staff Pat Clarey, who worked for former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson before signing on with Arnold, is leaving and will be replaced by Susan Kennedy, who worked for recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Team Arnold says the change does not represent a shift to the left. Clarey had been planning on leaving for months, the governor said. Susan Kennedy is as smart as a laptop and a Hummer-weight heavy in politics. This is about competence.

To reinforce that point, Wilson called to tell me what a swell hire Kennedy is. Kennedy delivered "the best speech I've ever heard" on business deregulation, said the former gov. And, I'll add, Kennedy is so pro-business that many Democrats don't trust her.

In another sense, Kennedy represents a pattern: She worked for a Democrat who wouldn't do the tough stuff to fix the state budget. Now she'll work for a Republican who won't do the tough stuff to fix the state budget.

I voted for Schwarzenegger -- I want to him to succeed. I appreciate that he has pushed through workers' compensation reform. I also understand that his poll numbers began to fall when he started doing the hard part of his job.

Remember when Schwarzenegger (rightly) called for a big shift in pensions for state and municipal employees, because local governments simply can't afford to pay out what they've promised? Public-employee unions turned on him.

They noted that a reform measure he supported left out death-and-disability benefits -- something easily corrected with new legislation. Even though Schwarzenegger's remedy would have saved the state from fiscal anguish, his popularity suffered.

So Schwarzenegger walked away from the issue. The state and municipalities will have to pay out increasing percentages of their general funds to people who no longer work for them. Fat pension benefits will force cities and counties to cut compensation for the people who do the work. Because the governor failed to lead and didn't bother to sell his position, he fell down on the job.

Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association credits Schwarzenegger for his record on taxes: "What he's done up to this point has not been bad. He has pledged fidelity to Proposition 13. He has not raised taxes. He has cut the car tax." Besides, it's not easy for a Republican to cut spending when the Legislature tilts to the left.

OK, but no one said the job would be easy. Now that state tax revenues are rebounding, it will be even harder to cut spending -- despite the $4 billion structural deficit. In fact, Schwarzenegger is touting a mega-bond to rebuild the state's infrastructure -- a fine idea, if he also could cut unnecessary programs.

"At the end of the day," Coupal noted, "our concern is this: There's tons of revenue coming into the state now. It has the potential of being Gray Davis redux, and that we learned nothing from the dot-com boom-and-bust."

I blame voters for this: They don't want tax hikes. They don't want shortfalls. Even though spending increases created the budget deficit, they don't want program cuts.

Meanwhile, Democrats say voters can get more government services by making the rich pay for them -- which isn't true -- while Republicans insist on no tax increases but won't curb spending. I think Schwarzenegger should not have rescinded the entire vehicle license fee raised by Davis. One reason voters believe they can get something for nothing is that they keep electing big spenders, who inflate spending but not taxes.

Who cares if Kennedy signals a shift to the left? These days, it doesn't matter which party is in power -- neither one will do the heavy lifting.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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