Listen -- California is almost broke and we need a budget

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was right to devote his State of the State address Thursday to California's imminent fiscal collapse. The state is about to run out of money, and there is little point in laying out an ambitious legislative agenda if he and lawmakers can't even balance the current budget.

Schwarzenegger blames political partisanship, a tacit admission that he hasn't been able to sell the message he pitched after being sworn into office, in 2006, for the second time. The era of post-partisanship clearly has not prevailed in Sacramento.

Reaching back to his breakout movie role, he told the Legislature on Thursday that "Conan's sword could not have cleaved our political system in two as cleanly as our own political parties have done." Clever line, and true up to a point. But he's the man in charge

With all of Schwarzenegger's Hollywood background, all his mastery of the blockbuster and of the science and art of promotion, he has not delivered to Californians any sense of the scale of the budget problem. To residents here, the state crisis appears to be dwarfed by the nationwide recession and federal bailouts. But California has an enormous looming calamity all its own.

The masters of the message so far have been political opinion makers and special interests, who argue that any solution is fine as long as it doesn't raise taxes, or cut schools, or hurt the poor, or furlough state workers, or stall progress on the environment, or drive away business. The point Schwarzenegger tried to make Thursday is that all those interests have to take a hit for the long-term good of everyone.

So far, in the 18 months since the last fat budget year, that message hasn't landed. As a consequence, Californiansare not putting pressure on the Legislature to act. Arguments against tax increases go unanswered. Warnings of cuts to Medi-Cal or other programs meant as a cushion against tough times like these go unexplained, as though they have no effect on those of us fortunate enough to have health insurance. Meanwhile, California remains unready for the Obama presidency and the quick action that is expected to send economy-stimulating aid to states with their fiscal houses in better order.

Schwarzenegger struck a quiet and conciliatory tone in his speech. Let's hope that's an indication that budget talks are serious and some kind of deal is within reach. Then the governor will have the lead role in explaining to Californians why they must pay more and get less now in order to ensure a more prosperous future.

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