The Un-Savage Sword of Conan
The last time I had been in the California governor's
inner office for a one-on-one interview, I was meeting with Gov.
Gray Davis, who was in deep denial about the impending recall
election. I was there again Tuesday to talk to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How was it different? Well, let's just say that Schwarzenegger
keeps his "Conan the Barbarian" sword in a lined box
near the head of a long conference table.
"Go ahead," the governor told me after
the interview, "pick it up."
I wielded the Savage Sword of Conan, although
my stomach slice was cut short when it met with the corner of
an antique chest. (Warning to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez: Schwarzenegger
says that the sword is so heavy that a mere nudge can send a chunk
of flesh flying.)
Schwarzenegger's message: Just because he pulled
his support for a pension-reform proposal to move new state and
local government workers to a 401(k)-type pension plan, he still
aims to reform the system -- he isn't retreating. He just wants
a measure that provides for death and disability benefits.
In his second year in office, this governor is
more Sacramento-savvy than the rookie governor who said he didn't
want to shuffle the boxes of bureaucracy because "I want
to blow them up."
I ask: How is the budget you presented for the
next fiscal year different from what Gray Davis would have done?
Schwarzenegger said he didn't want to compare
himself with Davis, who, he said, wanted to make more budget cuts.
(And look where it got him.)
Despite all the hollering about Schwarzenegger
the Knife, the Legislative Analyst's Office sees very few real
spending reductions in the $109 billion budget for 2005-2006.
Of the $9 billion in what the leg analyst calls "savings,"
$2.3 billion comes from not returning money to the schools budget
-- even still, public school funding will exceed $9,800 per student
-- and $1.3 billion comes from a raid of transportation funds.
There are about a billion dollars in real cuts made by such steps
as freezing cost-of-living increases for the CalWorks grants and
disability payments. So where is the ax?
"Nothing we want to do is drastic,"
the Austrian Oak explained. The guv doesn't want to roll back
health care for needy families, as "it's too brutal."
An aide brings a chart into the room, and Schwarzenegger shows
how he plans to use gradual spending cuts to close the gap between
what the state takes in and what it spends.
You're not blowing up the boxes, I say. "We
will," Schwarzenegger says, noting his plan to improve the
California Youth Authority and Department of Corrections office.
So, for the Terminator 2005, "blowing up" means making
bureaucracies work better. Besides, he adds, state government
has to grow to accommodate a larger state population.
Some Republicans see this more reasonable tone
as a betrayal. But there is a method to his saneness. For one
thing, Schwarzenegger gets the math. "We are very ambitious,"
he noted, "but of course when you work with 120 legislators,
everyone's hacking and chipping away and it slows down the process.
The advantage that we have is democracy, but the disadvantage
is it's not a dictatorship."
So the big, bold move Schwarzenegger now cites
is something that many critics see as a gimmick. He has proposed
ballot measures to reform the pension system (not now, but later),
improve education, redraw legislative districts and reform the
state budget process. The latter two areas are most important
Schwarzenegger noted that it is wrong that Sacramento
can raid transportation money instead of cutting spending elsewhere
to balance the budget. Yes, he raided those funds, too, but only
because past practices forced him to. Now, if he has his way,
there will be a ceiling beyond which Sacramento cannot raise spending,
and future governors and legislators won't be able to dip into
school and transportation coffers.
As Schwarzenegger put it, "If the Democrats
say, 'We want to raise taxes,' then the Republicans say, 'no.'
And so out came borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, borrowing. It
created the $22 billion debt that I've inherited. So what I'm
saying is, this year, let's get to the source, to what created
I am not on board with the initiative approach.
If Sacramento could get around Propositions 98 and 42, Sacramento
will be able to get around this measure, too. Future lawmakers
will find loopholes, or they'll sneak language into other initiatives
that weaken any real reform. You can't wall up every crack in
a creaky wall.
The answer isn't an initiative, but political
resolve. He's a bodybuilder. He should understand self-discipline.
Besides, the Legislative Analyst noted, the state
budget is troublesome because too much spending is on "autopilot."
Schwarzenegger shouldn't fix a warped mechanism by adding onto
His response: "Autopilot is not the evil.
It's the autopilot that makes you spend more money than you have
that makes the evil." I like that, even though I know his
scheme can't work.
So the big man's big reform is: "Narrow the
areas where they can create gimmicks."
His gimmick is fewer gimmicks.
Give the man this much: It was after Schwarzenegger
garnered the signatures to put workers' compensation on the ballot
that Sacramento passed compromise workers' compensation legislation.
For him, the initiative is a bargaining chit.
Another Arnold-ism: "I've always said, if
the legislators don't do the job, the people will."
I like voters, too, but in 1998 and 2002, voters
sent a herd of legislators dominated by hard-left Democrats to
Afterward, voters shouldn't have been shocked
and outraged that government spending spiked and, when the tax
revenue ran dry, the Golden State was swimming in red.
Voters loved Schwarzenegger's bravado about cutting
waste, but when he prepares to hack away at big-ticket items like
state and local pensions, his popularity sags.
The Dems deride the gov's gimmicks, even though
their only trick is to raise taxes. Or should I say raise taxes,
then still spend more than they have?
Don't root against Schwarzenegger: If he loses,
then the whole state loses.
Schwarzenegger said that he isn't weak. He looks
at the next round of the budget game as "another squat with
500 pounds." He never expected it to be easy, and these days
he has stopped trying to make it sound easy.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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