Today's question: Is California today better or worse off since Schwarzenegger became governor in 2003? Was Gray Davis' recall a mistake? Does the proposed recall of Schwarzenegger by the prison guards union have any merit or pose a threat to his administration? All week, Bill Bradley and Bill Boyarsky discuss California under Arnold Schwarzenegger.
No question: We're better off after the recall
Point: Bill Bradley
Is California better off with Arnold Schwarzenegger than it was before the dramatic 2003 recall of Gray Davis? Absolutely.
I know both governors well, and like them. The reality is that the pre-recall situation had become so toxic that Davis was unable to govern. His 2002 reelection was won in a highly negative political environment against an unqualified Republican, with a smaller-than-expected turnout of Democrats and independents. Then came the surprise announcement of a massive budget deficit. The former governor, who was in trouble with Capitol factions and lacked Schwarzenegger's ability to appeal to the public, has acknowledged since his defeat that Schwarzenegger has a number of notable accomplishments that he would likely have been unable to achieve.
First, Schwarzenegger stabilized the state's finances by winning voter approval of the multi-billion-dollar deficit bonds Davis and the Legislature put together to keep state government running. Schwarzenegger's Propositions 57 and 58, which voters approved in the 2004 state primary, made the deficit bonds constitutional; otherwise, the state's finances could have been shattered by a legal challenge. Schwarzenegger then passed a major workers compensation reform package which, while decidedly imperfect for workers, helped many businesses.
After a rightward detour into his 2005 "Year of Reform" special election (his initiatives addressed legitimate concerns but not well, especially from a marketing standpoint in this blue state), Schwarzenegger got to working on some issues he had talked enthusiastically about with me and others in 2002 and '03 while considering and preparing his run for governor.
He accelerated the state's renewable energy requirements even beyond the nation-leading level approved by Davis. Then, working with Democratic legislative leaders Fabian Nuñez and Don Perata, he pushed the biggest bonds investment package in history to rebuild the state's crumbling infrastructure and a landmark program to cut greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change that is a model for many states.
The Bush administration has predictably done everything possible to block California's climate-change actions, so Schwarzenegger and former governor-turned-attorney general Jerry Brown fought it out with the White House in court. In any event, the next president, whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain, has pledged to allow California's climate change program to proceed.
Schwarzenegger also pushed long and hard last year for a universal healthcare program. Perhaps he pushed too long for it. Despite putting together an impressive coalition, he couldn't overcome the issue's intractable politics. He's also working to achieve the needed next steps on water.
Nevertheless, even with these accomplishments and others, there is one big thing Schwarzenegger has definitely not solved. That's California's chronic budget crisis, fed in part by his first act as governor: the extraordinarily popular decision to cut the car tax, which, nevertheless, could and should have been more than offset by a combination of increased revenues and reforms.
On the budget, Schwarzenegger is confronted by two extraordinarily stubborn opposing political factions and one bizarre legal quirk. The combination of the three factors creates fiscal entropy in the closed system of the Capitol.
The two factions are the ultra-government faction (principally public employee unions and other advocates for expanding government), which dominates legislative Democrats; and the anti-government faction (far right ideologues and the anti-tax lobbies), which dominates legislative Republicans. The bizarre legal quirk is the nearly unique requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget, which California shares with only two other states, both quite small.
Schwarzenegger has made many proposals, but they haven't taken flight. Meanwhile, he has been whipsawed from year to year by the demands of the ultra-government and anti-government factions.
Will this outsized figure who made the unlikeliest of journeys from small-town Austrian boy to global sports and movie superstar and, now, governor of America's largest state be undone by this chronic fiscal crisis? I don't think so.
I thought the 2003 recall was a bad idea. But once it succeeded and put Schwarzenegger in the governor's office, I tried to be a good sport and see what he could do.
You are right, Bill, in your analysis of his laudable efforts on environmental issues and his working with Democratic legislative leaders on the infrastructure bonds. But these are not uniquely unattainable goals in Sacramento. Builders, contractors, manufacturers, labor unions, financial institutions and other powerful Capitol interest groups and campaign contributors will benefit hugely from the badly needed upgrades of highways, levees and other aging portions of the state's once-grand infrastructure. So will cities, counties, towns and many local agencies.
It's a win-win situation. So is renewable energy, a long anticipated industry now coming into its own with the prospect of real money being invested. The prospect of money being made -- and contributed to political campaigns -- seems to bring lawmakers and Capitol special interests together.
But I don't agree that the governor has, as you put it, "stabilized the state's finances." All he has done is delay disaster until another day, presumably after he leaves office. The budget deal crafted over the weekend by legislative leaders does nothing except put off problems. It's worthless, and the state Legislature's leaders and Schwarzenegger should be ashamed.
Actually, it doesn't seem as though the governor had much to do with it. As reported by The Times' Evan Halper, the governor "appears to have been left out of the final deal-making."
That brings me to Schwarzenegger's greatest failing. He doesn't seem to know how to play the frustrating, sometimes disreputable, game of Capitol politics. Why can't he push around or persuade a few Assembly Republicans? I know they act as though they were members of a cult. But isn't there something a few of them might want? Doesn't a law partner or a relative want a judgeship or something else? Or couldn't he twist an arm or two? Even though they are cultists, I doubt that every Assembly Republican is impervious to fear.
Our last actor-governor, Ronald Reagan, knew these things -- and he also understood how to negotiate, as he showed later in life in his dealings with the Soviet Union. His predecessor, Pat Brown, had these skills, as did other successful governors.
I understand that the structure of government works against Schwarzenegger. Term limits deprive the legislature of skilled, experienced leaders such as former Assembly speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown.
Schwarzenegger is smart, and he's got a great personality. He is confident and he understands politics. But he has yet to focus his skills, as various pundits and other critics have been saying since he took office.
On the whole, however, the governor's sunny optimism and can-do attitude has improved the atmosphere in Sacramento. At least that's how it looks to me, living a few hundred miles south.
That's why the prison guards union's threat to recall him is a terrible idea. It is the product of a group of pampered political bullies. The prison guards treat us taxpayers as if we were prisoners, and I like the way Schwarzenegger is standing up to their union.
Bill Boyarsky, a writer for Truthdig and LA Observed, is the author of "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics." He was a political reporter, columnist and editor for The Times.
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