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The Cost of Buffing Governor’s Self-Image

Is Arnold Schwarzenegger the most expensive governor in California history?

With his announcement this week that we will have a special election in November, we can add $50 million to $80 million to the bill Californians will pay to keep his self-image buffed. That’s the estimate of how much the special election will cost taxpayers.

And it’s on top of what he is costing us by having borrowed billions of dollars to replace the annual revenue the state once collected from the car tax, which he rolled back without bothering to find a less costly way to make up the loss.

If one calculates the lost revenue in his two years in office at roughly $8 billion, which was bonded out at 4.025% a year, the annual interest cost is about $322 million. That’s a high price to pay for the huzzahs Schwarzenegger garnered for his crowd-pleasing tax stunt.

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In his speech Monday announcing the election, Schwarzenegger called it “a fantastic bargain” that will “fix a broken system and save the state billions of dollars.” Given his childlike enthusiasm, it seems almost cruel to point out the paucity of the menu he’s offering voters. Here are the three main ballot initiatives around which the special election is designed:

* A fiscal reform measure that will make the annual budget process even more unwieldy than it already is.

* A redistricting reform proposal that can’t reasonably be implemented before 2010, according to Schwarzenegger’s handpicked secretary of state, Bruce McPherson.

* A measure that extends the period a public school teacher must work before receiving tenure to five years from two.

So we have one measure that won’t do anything to improve the state’s fiscal condition, another that can’t be put into practice for six years and a third that will have about as much impact on the quality of education as changing the brand of chalk in the classrooms. (Two other initiatives have also qualified for the special election, and three more are likely to.)

Apparently these things are so crucial to the health of the California Republic that Schwarzenegger couldn’t wait an extra six months to place them on the regular ballot in June. Instead, he decided to further indulge in personality governance by rushing them to a vote this fall.

I wouldn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I’m against the special election. Any red-blooded newspaper columnist in California would be nuts to oppose the governor’s move, for the simple reason that the coming campaign is bound to be rich in material. I expect to spend the summer in a hammock under the elms, while ripe nuggets of electoral hypocrisy fall upon me from the skies, like pellets of guano.

Indeed, I didn’t even have to wait for Schwarzenegger’s announcement before the first pellet landed, courtesy of the California Republican Party.

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The GOP, responding to a vote by the state teachers union to raise dues to fund a $54-million campaign to oppose the governor’s proposals, set up a fake “grass-roots” website at the address stoptheteachertax.com. The website sheds crocodile tears over the union’s vote in a sophomorically transparent attempt to paint the dues -- which, as this column previously noted, are not mandatory -- as a tax. (The phone number posted on the site, by the way, connects callers directly with Republican Party headquarters in Burbank.)

“Many teachers personally buy classroom supplies for their students,” the site states, commiserating ostentatiously. “And now those teachers are being told by the powerful union lobby to pay even more for a political agenda that they may not even agree with.”

What’s shameless about this appeal is that it doesn’t mention that GOP legislators went along with a budget measure last year that killed a state teacher tax credit valued at up to $1,500 per teacher, or roughly $200 million per year -- four times the dues increase. (Much as it likes to blame the budget mess on Democrats, the GOP holds enough seats in Sacramento to be a full partner in all budget legislation.) This was money that many teachers, with whom the GOP pretends to sympathize, relied on to purchase the classroom supplies that the Legislature is too cheap to provide through the state budget.

The goal of the tax credit was to retain credentialed teachers in the state’s K-12 system by showing that the state valued, if begrudgingly, its public school educators. That was in 2001. But the winds have shifted in the last four years, and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s version of education reform, which derives entirely from his personal pique at the teachers union, is to stiffen tenure requirements to discourage qualified teachers from even joining the system.

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Is this really the be-all and end-all of the governor’s education policy? Doesn’t seem to be worth rushing into an $80-million election, does it?

The low blows that will characterize this completely unnecessary electoral campaign are just beginning, and no doubt they will go lower than this. Schwarzenegger was already out and about this week telling elderly homeowners that his Democratic opponents are plotting to change Proposition 13 in a way that could deprive them of their homes. In the old days, we would call that statement a baldfaced lie; today, I suppose, we’re supposed to accept it as merely a charming fabrication.

Fifty years ago, during another period in which lying and stupidity passed for fine political discourse, a courtly Boston lawyer said to the Republican star of the day: “Have you no sense of decency?” It looks like we’ll have plenty more opportunities to ask our political leaders the same question in the weeks to come.

You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.

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