Debra Saunders / Jan. 17, 2009

Arnold's State of the State -- Not So Good

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s State of the State address on Thursday was a far cry from his first such speech in 2004. Then, it was Hollywood celebrity meets Sacramento schlump. International media flooded the state Capitol. The total-recall governor used his new platform to scold the Democratic Legislature for spending too much. The targets of the Austrian Oak’s ire enjoyed a comfortable majority in both houses, but off the record, they spoke like beaten men.

“I don’t want to move boxes around; I want to blow them up,” the governator crowed as Democrats quaked.

At the time, I wrote, “Schwarzenegger is showing Sacramento what a man can do when he’s not afraid to take risks.” Wrong.

Cut to 2009. Schwarzenegger found out that when he took risks, no one liked him. He didn’t blow up the boxes; they blew up on him. The 2009 State of the State address was a somber affair, and there were empty seats in the Assembly gallery. He now advocates raising taxes. He has to. The buzz outside didn’t come from the swarm of journalists from Japan and Germany; it was a low rumbling from angry demonstrators protesting his proposed budget cuts.

As for Democrats in the Legislature, they had lost all fear of the erstwhile action hero. Now they’re afraid of the state’s projected $41.5 billion shortfall over the next 18 months. They’re in charge of the Assembly and Senate, and they are fearful voters will notice.

So last month, Democrats passed a stunt of a budget. It was too small, sort of a baby at $18 billion. And, in passing, it did not garner the needed two-thirds of votes. But it gave them a chance to blame Republicans, who have refused to vote for any tax increase whatsoever – and Schwarzenegger for vetoing an illegal gambit.

The state may have to start sending out IOUs – and legislators are burning the midnight oil working to throw blame elsewhere.

The Democrats are right about this. A $42 billion, 18-month shortfall is not going to be fixed with cuts alone – not when the annual general fund is $103 billion.

“If you go back to the budget we had four years ago, we’d be in balance,” Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, countered. Sure, but given California law, court decisions, increased case loads and collective bargaining agreements, it is impossible for Sacramento to enact a go-back-in-time budget.

DeVore has proposed opening up state oil leases to raise billions in new revenue that he says could raise $5 billion. That’s still about $37 bil short.

DeVore argued that Republicans have to oppose tax increases because, “The brand of what it means to be Republican is now in jeopardy of meaning nothing.” So instead the brand has come to mean: more spending without paying for it.

And being a Democrat means spending extra without paying for it because you can blame the minority party – as party leaders take no responsibility. They were downright apoplectic at Schwarzenegger’s suggestion that the Legislature and the governor – who already does not pocket his paycheck – forfeit their $173 per diem and their paychecks – members make $116,208 annually – “for every day the budget goes past” its June 15 deadline. “I mean, if you call a taxi and the taxi doesn’t come, you don’t pay the driver,” Schwarzenegger explained.

Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, cited the two-thirds tax-approval requirement and asked, “Why should I have my pay withheld when I’m being held hostage by a minority?” Ditto Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

“Why let the taxi driver take us into a dead end?” Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, asked later. Oddly, he was not referring to the Democratic-led Legislature. The state is drowning in red ink – and they want their paychecks pronto.

The only guy not pointing fingers at others was former Gov. Gray Davis – who was ousted in the 2003 recall. And for what? For raising taxes, of course. The circle is complete.

Schwarzenegger proclaimed Thursday, “It is not that California is ungovernable. It is that for too long we have been split by ideology.”

Not quite. If Schwarzenegger had cut spending when Democrats feared him, the budget hole would be smaller. If he had raised taxes earlier, the increases would be less painful. If there were adults running Sacramento, there would be a budget deal today. And now that Schwarzenegger is governing like an adult, he is all alone.


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