The Magazine

Losing Propositions

It was a "fantastic" election--for Schwarzenegger's union enemies.

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By ARNOLD STEINBERG
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THERE ARE MANY REASONS CALIFORNIA governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lost all four of the ballot issues he imprudently placed before the voters in a $300-million special election last week. But among these reasons, education is paramount.

Many Republican parents and Republican women stayed away from the polls or voted "No." And there were the independents who had once supported him, along with the "Schwarzenegger Democrats" who'd helped bring him to office just two years ago and now were disenchanted with "the governator," largely over the education issue. Then when Schwarzenegger came out swinging in Propositions 74, 75, 76, and 77--reform measures about which more in a moment--he appeared punitive, seeming to move against schools and teachers, against cops and firefighters and public employees generally. Voters saw him in a power play. One voter who earlier had supported him said to me, "He's so arrogant, he's a fool."

Broadly speaking, Gov. Schwarzenegger last week reaped the penalty for blowing his first year in office. He arrived in Sacramento in November 2003 with, to use his favorite word, "fantastic" popularity: a secure Republican political base, clear majority support among independent voters, and solid inroads among Democrats. This was the time for him to have confronted the tough budget issues and to have faced down the powerful teachers' union, the California Teachers Association (CTA). He could have won, or at least laid the groundwork for a future victory.

But Schwarzenegger, though he seems to have been strategic in his personal life, setting and achieving goals (Mr. Universe, big money, a prestige marriage, Hollywood stardom), has been tactical in politics. In October 2003, California voters removed their governor, Gray Davis, and replaced him with Schwarzenegger in a special recall election. Only a year before, Davis had been reelected, and Schwarzenegger had been focused on his own plan to run for governor in 2006. With that in view, he'd sought to expand his political résumé by sponsoring a vanity ballot issue, Proposition 49.

This measure, once triggered by certain revenue conditions, would create a new statewide program of after-school activities, at an annual cost of nearly half a billion dollars. The state's leading newspapers, most of them liberal, had opposed Prop. 49 as fiscally irresponsible. Indeed, it was exactly the sort of unfunded mandate that Schwarzenegger, as governor, would decry. But since the measure required no tax hike, it had provoked only limited opposition from anti-tax groups, and since it took no funding away from education, the CTA had endorsed it. Schwarzenegger was misled by his easy rapport with the CTA, mistaking the union's willingness to back yet another new government program for friendliness to him. Schwarzenegger had appeared in television ads for Prop. 49, which, thanks in part to the CTA, had won. Little did Schwarzenegger suspect that just three years later, the CTA would destroy him.

TO APPRECIATE how the education issue defined last week's special election, it is necessary to rehearse some of the background to California's budget woes. Notably, all the way back in 1988, the state's voters adopted a CTA-sponsored ballot measure to amend the state constitution. Proposition 98 was a unique and reckless claim by public schools on roughly half of any growth in state revenue. If revenue rose in a boom year (remember the dot-com bubble?), that new level would become the baseline for future budgeting for public schools, even if a recession ensued. Research at the time indicated that Proposition 98 could be defeated, partly because it's easier to persuade voters to vote "No," but partly because this argument tested potent: The proposed constitutional change would tie the hands of the legislature and was fiscally irresponsible. Shortsighted Republicans, however, influenced by the politically ineffectual state chamber of commerce, failed to mount a vigorous opposition and let it pass by default, locking in an unsound public policy that has haunted them ever since.