The Blog

Eraser

Governor Schwarzenegger takes on the Democratic legislature and looks to terminate California's budget woes.

11:00 PM, Dec 4, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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BY MIDNIGHT West Coast time tonight, Arnold Schwarzenegger will have solved California's fiscal mess. Well, not solved it, exactly, but he is poised to deliver on the last of his big three recall promises. The Governator wants the legislature to sign off on a $15 billion deficit bond, which voters will have to approve next March. Schwarzenegger could get a version of that as soon as tonight, as well as a spending cap (he calls it a "never again spending limit") that gives him more control over the budget process in fiscal fights to come.

For those of you keeping score, here's where Schwarzenegger stands after three weeks on the job. On Day One, he signed an executive order overturning the tripling of the state's car tax. On Day 17, he signed a bill repealing the measure granting drivers' licenses to illegal aliens. By the close of business, on Day 19, he may have his budget fix and spending cap. Schwarzenegger promised to deliver those three items in his first 100 days as governor. He's about to pull it off in one-fifth the time.

What's the secret behind this flexkrieg? It has more to do with leverage than it does muscle. Some exerted by the governor (Schwarzenegger killed the car tax increase on his own, by executive fiat). Some exerted by voters (Democrats were staring down the barrel of a referendum next spring if they didn't go along with Arnold on the drivers' license bill). And still more exerted by political reality: lawmakers had until tonight to pass the bond to get it on the March ballot; plus, if the legislature doesn't go along with the bond bailout, the options are spending cuts and tax increases voters simply won't abide. Schwarzenegger understood this leverage and used it to his benefit. The star of "Hercules in New York" turns out to be Archimedes in Sacramento.

Does this mean that Schwarzenegger has free license, and his opponents are in free fall? Not quite. Already, Democrats have shown a willingness to engage Arnold beyond Sacramento, which suggests there will be some semblance of a permanent campaign against the Governator. During the bond debate, state treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat with his eyes on a gubernatorial run in 2006, offered a counter plan to Schwarzenegger's. Angelides played the usual Democratic pity card, saying he'd rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut services for children and the disabled. And he hastily set up a committee--Californians Against Mortgaging Our Future--to get out the message with a TV buy (among the heavy donors: Hollywood producer Steven Bing, more famously known as the sire of Elizabeth Hurley's child). Odds are California's first couple didn't care for the ad, which borrowed liberally from Maria's Shriver's uncle: "Instead of asking what we can do for our children, Governor Schwarzenegger is asking what our children can do for us."

Raise their voices they might, but the leading Democrats in Sacramento aren't in sync when it comes to impeding Schwarzenegger. Attorney general Bill Lockyer's approach: be an irritant. He's told reporters that Arnold needs to investigate and then publicly disclose his groping past. Angelides' strategy is to create a shadow government with alternative proposals. Then there's state controller Steve Westly, who prefers to take the high road (for now); he sided with Schwarzenegger during the bond debate. It's worth nothing that Westly, unlike the term-limited Lockyer and Angelides, can run for reelection in 2006. Why pick a fight with a governor whose coattails could terminate him?

Although, a fight in Sacramento may not be far off. A month from now, Schwarzenegger will unveil a budget proposal for the California fiscal year that begins next summer. Assuming he gets his way on the spending cap, and also assuming he doesn't renege on his vows not to raise taxes, then the Governator has to come up approximately $14 billion in spending cuts in order to balance his budget. Moreover, Schwarzenegger says he won't trim education spending. The difference this time is that it will be a Schwarzenegger budget, not just winning recall and riding into town to clean up the mess created by Gray Davis and company.

MAYBE THE DEMOCRATS get lucky and Arnold loses some of his luster in the face of bad-news spending cuts. And maybe the left is willing to go to new and unusual lengths to put Schwarzenegger on the defensive. Latino activists, for example, plan a one-day economic strike next Friday and at further dates next year (their idea of strike is no work, no going to school, no consumer purchases) to protest the repeal of the drivers license bill.

But what about that little thing called star power?

In pushing for the deficit bond, Schwarzenegger faced a choice: stay in Sacramento and work the legislature, or hit the road and work the crowds. The latter approach prevailed. As he did during his recall bus tour, Schwarzenegger barnstormed the state, south to north. But this time, with select stops in districts represented by swing Democrats. Schwarzenegger also made time for the friendly confines of the conservative talk radio circuit.

As in the recall, the music blared (the more stately "Taking Care of Business," by Bachman Turner Overdrive, replacing Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"--sure, it's a Canadian band, but we live in a NAFTA age). Schwarzenegger made it clear as to who the bad guys are in this debate: "The 'never again' spending limit will be the equivalent of taking the state credit card(s) away from the politicians, cut them in half . . . and throw them in the garbage can," he told a San Diego crowd. And to prove his point, the Governator whipped out an oversized facsimile of a state of California credit card and snapped it in half.

Little did the voters know that, in choosing Arnold Schwarzenegger over fellow recall candidate Gallagher, they'd still get prop comedy. And little did the Democratic legislature expect to wind up like one of Gallagher's watermelons.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

Correction appended 12/5/03: The article originally identified Steve Westly as the insurance commissioner. He is the state controller.