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Governor Ties Up Too Many Ideas With a ‘Reform’ Bow

‘Reform” has become one of the most overused words in our language -- so worn that it has lost its meaning and credibility.

Remember electricity deregulation “reform”? It led to the California energy “crisis.” (Another overused word.) President Bush is pushing Social Security privatization “reform” -- a Wall Street bonanza -- to avoid what he asserts is a growing “crisis.”

“Reform” is the pretty bow a politician wraps around an idea -- whether sound or nutty -- to sell it to voters.

As columnist William Safire wrote of “reform” in his “New Political Dictionary”: “The word became a euphemism for any planned revision in law.”

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These days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hardly can get through a sentence without uttering the word, repeatedly calling this “the year of reform.”

He has been equating himself with one of California’s great governors, Hiram Johnson, a historic reformer who 100 years ago whipped the railroad barons. “We are back to that era now,” Schwarzenegger told reporters last week. “They’re all around there in the Capitol, as you know, the different special interests.”

Never mind that Johnson’s targets were corrupt corporate monopolies. Schwarzenegger’s reform campaign -- bankrolled by business interests -- is aimed largely at what he calls “the monster” government. Using his analogy, the modern day robber barons must include civil servants and teachers.

In his budget proposal, the “reform” governor cuts benefits for the elderly poor, welfare moms and the disabled who need home care -- while protecting corporations and rich folks against higher taxes.

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“It’s very clear,” Schwarzenegger says. “Any poll you take, it’s 2 to 1 against taxes, raising taxes, because the people feel they’re paying enough taxes.”

Not exactly. Polls have shown that Californians aren’t masochistic: They indeed would prefer not to be hit with higher taxes. But many also are realistic: They believe higher taxes must be part of any solution to the state’s chronic budget deficit, along with spending cuts.

Last week, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing that 54% of likely voters favored raising taxes to help fill the budget hole. Specifically, 65% supported raising the income tax on “the wealthiest Californians” and 72% wanted to hike tobacco and liquor levees. Only 35% favored raising the state sales tax.

Testifying before a Senate committee about the governor’s proposed budget and reforms, state Finance Director Tom Campbell left open the faint possibility of a tax hike.

“If it’s the will of the people that we increase taxes, even in the present [economic] environment, then you would have more revenue,” he told lawmakers. “Now my strong advice would be that this would be a mistake. But I really think that is where the debate is likely to be.”

Right now, the Capitol environment is too polluted for any substantive debate. Relations have soured. The governor alternately has been calling for bipartisan cooperation and then belittling Democrats. “The people,” he complains, “have sent the legislators to Sacramento to do work, not just hang. That’s what they’ve been doing.”

Democrats aren’t convinced Schwarzenegger sincerely wants to negotiate. They think he’s itching for a ballot brawl over his “reforms” at a special election next fall. Democrats and the governor are like circling dogs sizing up each other -- the terriers yapping, the big dog growling.

If they ever calm down, there seems plenty of room for compromise.

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An example: Whether it’s called “reform” or partial “repeal” of Proposition 98, Schwarzenegger has suggested at least one sensible idea on school spending.

Proposition 98, approved by voters in 1988, is more complicated than waterfowl hunting regulations or a paella recipe. But basically, it guarantees minimum funding for kindergarten through community college. The law assures that K-14 education will receive the same total amount of money from state and local taxes that it got the previous year, adjusted for enrollment and inflation. (The state’s share must equal at least 39% of its general fund.)

This means if California is in boom times and the state decides to give schools an extra billion dollars above their guarantee, it’s on the hook for that billion-dollar bonus every year afterward, even when the economy goes bust.

Schwarzenegger wants to end that deal. He proposes paying the minimum, plus whatever one-time bonus the state can afford, but not be stuck owing the extra bucks forever.

Currently, the schools’ base guarantee is nearly $10 billion higher than it would have been if Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature had not given them more than the minimum from 1999 to 2001, according to the state Finance Department.

“If the Legislature wants to give more in a given year, that’s great,” says Campbell, a former lawmaker. “But it should be able to do it without tying our hands for the future.”

“That part is not without merit,” says Senate Education Committee Chairman Jack Scott (D-Altadena), a former Pasadena Community College president. But he objects to other parts of Schwarzenegger’s budget and education “reforms,” such as automatic across-the-board cutting when the state runs in the red and the politicians deadlock on a fix.

Changes are needed. Schwarzenegger has floated several intriguing ideas worthy of debate and negotiation. Too bad he insists on calling them all “reform.” It’s a stretch that sounds like political hype.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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