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Schwarzenegger’s Star Power Drives a Dubious Plan

Sacramento

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the greatest political salesman since Ronald Reagan, at least in California. We’ll know a lot more on election day when voters decide whether to buy the actor’s after-school ballot measure.

One thing for sure: Proposition 49 would not have attracted a fraction of the attention it has without The Terminator’s sponsorship.

It’s tempting to overreach with stretched Reagan-Schwarzenegger comparisons. Remember, Hollywood’s Last Action Hero hasn’t won anything politically yet.

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But this much can be said: Reagan and Schwarzenegger have shared characteristics developed through movie acting. Unlike most politicians, they hit the campaign trail with instant star quality, telegenic body language and superb communication skills.

Schwarzenegger, like Reagan, also is imbued with unshakable self-confidence and conviction. Plus a disrespect for most legislators and their operation.

If Prop. 49 passes -- and polls show it ahead -- this will be yet another symptom of the electorate’s distrust of Sacramento politicians. There’s a strong public attitude of “let’s just do it ourselves.”

It started in 1978 with voter approval of Prop. 13, the revolutionary property tax cut. It later included Prop. 98, guaranteeing 40% of the state general fund for public schools. Then came legislative term limits. And more.

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Although propelled by justifiable voter frustrations, it’s a destructive cycle -- destructive of representative government. The more the public strips away the power of the Legislature and governor, the more powerless they are to act.

That’s the problem with Prop. 49, a noble cause with an ignoble means: raiding the state treasury and grabbing money from other programs, such as health care, parks or law enforcement.

(Prop. 51 does the same thing, but there’s nothing noble about that sleazy initiative. Special interests invested in the measure and hope to be rewarded with self-enriching transportation projects of dubious benefit to the public.)

Under Prop. 49, up to $550 million automatically -- without legislative approval -- would be spent each year on before- and after-school programs. This wouldn’t come out of the Prop. 99 school allotment, but the general fund, the pot that feeds health, safety and other programs.

Schwarzenegger says his proposal would be funded from revenue growth. But other programs also are counting on that growth. So he should get in line like everybody else, critics contend. It’s why we have a governor and a Legislature.

At least filmmaker Rob Reiner’s Prop. 10, four years ago, raised tobacco taxes to pay for his early childhood development program.

“In a recession you don’t raise taxes,” Schwarzenegger counters.

“No initiative is perfect.... We can be pickering over this thing forever.”

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Pickering? Schwarzenegger slang for nitpicking.

“Look at the bigger picture: Get the kids off the streets and into a safe, supervised educational environment.... If it’s up to the politicians, they’ll never vote for it.”

Actually, state politicians currently are spending $117 million annually on after-school programs.

“I think Arnold has people cowed,” says Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which opposes Prop. 49. “It’s just bad government.

“If we get to the point where everybody’s sequestering funds for their pet project, we’re going to have more funds sequestered then we’ve got funds.”

The larger California Teachers Assn., however, supports the measure because it pumps more money into schools.

The California Taxpayers Assn. also backs Prop. 49. “A no-brainer for taxpayers,” says Cal Tax President Larry McCarthy. “This is not a substantial investment, but it will bring large returns.”

Both the teachers and taxpayers groups were bowled over by Schwarzenegger’s presentation of his initiative, insiders say -- impressed by both his passion and command of details.

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The 55-year-old Republican moderate invariably is asked about possibly running for governor in 2006. “The last thing I think about. You can only do this one step at a time.”

Schwarzenegger has been promoting after-school programs nationwide for a decade. And he adds: “There are cynics out there who say this is a steppingstone. I mean, it’s ludicrous. You don’t need an initiative to run for office.”

True. But his top advisors once shepherded former Gov. Pete Wilson -- chief of staff Bob White and political guru George Gorton. And they certainly see this as a pre-race warmup.

“Been having a great time,” says the former Mr. Universe, who once starred in “The Running Man.”

If he keeps running to the Capitol, Schwarzenegger may rue the day he dreamed up snatching tax money from the governor’s control. Reagan had complete access to the vault.


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