IT WAS CALIFORNIA'S golden age. No new taxes and only negligible growth in the deficit. Lawmakers stayed home. Crime was down. Freeway traffic was light, the shopping malls full, the air clean. The skies were overcast but bright. The sun never set on the last acting governorship of Cruz Bustamante.
And then, around 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, about 90 minutes after it began, the Bustamante Era was over. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged from anesthesia, orthopedic surgeon Kevin Ehrhart cleared him to resume his duties and Bustamante was again lieutenant governor without portfolio. His tenure in charge of the state was brief but memorable.
Or not. Californians, to be honest, haven't noticed the numerous times over the last eight years that Bustamante -- in theory, at least -- ran the state. It's not just when Schwarzenegger breaks his leg on the ski slopes, as he did Saturday, or when he gets in a motorcycle wreck, as he did earlier this year, that the lieutenant governor leads California. Bustamante takes over whenever the governor physically leaves the state.
So when Schwarzenegger was at the Republican National Convention in New York two years ago to help reelect President Bush, Bustamante was in charge back home. And when the governor was in Mexico last month, cooking California spinach on TV with Chef Lulu to convince Mexicans that the crop was no longer unsafe, Bustamante was in control here. And when Schwarzenegger, even before breaking his leg, took off to Idaho with his family to ski, he was leaving California in the hands of the lieutenant governor.
Article V, Section 10 of the California Constitution, which says the lieutenant governor "shall act as Governor during the impeachment, absence from the State, or other temporary disability of the Governor," was written in the era of the steamship, not long after telegraph lines supplanted the Pony Express. Back then there may actually have been a need for a lieutenant to be in charge when the governor was unreachable.
Those days ended decades ago. Still, that didn't stop Lt. Gov. Mike Curb from making appointments when then-Gov. Jerry Brown left the state for one of his presidential campaigns.
California should do away with this meaningless office. The governor should remain in charge when he's out of state, the same way the president keeps his hand on the button when he's visiting foreign lands. And if the governor is ever truly incapacitated for more than a few hours, or if he dies, or he takes another office, then another elected official -- such as the Assembly speaker -- should become acting governor until the next scheduled election.
But reformers have tried before to update the law, to no avail. So here we are. The golden age of Bustamante will soon make way for the possible acting governorship of incoming Lt. Gov. John Garamendi. May he rule as wisely as his predecessor.