Cutting the car tax plunged the state deeper into debt just as Schwarzenegger was taking the wheel. To cover it -- at least temporarily -- the new governor went on a borrowing binge. It didn't take much to persuade the Legislature and voters to authorize $15 billion in "economic recovery bonds."
The only thing thrown away was all the bond money, spent long ago on daily expenses -- the equivalent of borrowing to buy groceries.
The state's annual tab on the debt currently is $1.2 billion.
The bonds are only half paid off and aren't scheduled to be fully retired until 2016.
Granted, Schwarzenegger committed those errors early, as a rookie. He might act differently today, although there's little evidence of it.
He has a pattern of supporting exotic ballot measures that authorize discretionary spending without the revenue streams to pay for them, thus piling more of a burden on the bleeding general fund.
One example: the nearly $10-billion bond measure last November to make a down payment on a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That will cost the treasury $647 million annually for 30 years.
Example two: the $3-billion stem-cell research bond in 2004, costing the state $200 million annually for 30 years.
Now, to balance the budget, he wants to raid local governments' money. That's hardly living within the state's means.
All that said, general fund spending hasn't been as "out of control" as the deficit or Schwarzenegger's rhetoric would indicate.
The governor's number crunchers calculate that average annual spending growth under Schwarzenegger has been a mere 0.8%, based on his latest budget proposal. Under Davis, it was 6.3%; Pete Wilson, 4.6%; George Deukmejian, 8%; Jerry Brown, 12.7%; Ronald Reagan, 13.6%.
Neither was February's $12.5-billion tax increase that horrific, looking at the big picture. Schwarzenegger keeps calling it "the biggest tax increase in the history of California" -- not to brag but to get liberal taxers off his back.
In strictly dollar terms, he's right. But in relevant terms -- comparing the tax hike to the general fund size -- the all-time champ is Reagan. His tax increase equaled roughly 30% of the general fund. Wilson's was 16%; Schwarzenegger's 14%.
Living within your means sometimes requires increasing the means.