Renewing his vows

Tony Quinn is a former Republican legislative consultant who has written extensively on election-related issues.

The best thing that happened to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week was the defeat of Proposition 93, the term-limits reform measure.

Yes, he endorsed it. And yes, it would have made a sensible change in the state’s term-limits law -- allowing lawmakers to spend 12 years in either the Assembly or the Senate instead of the current six and eight years, respectively.

But the governor should have known better. The measure’s chief sponsors, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, selfishly wrote the measure to suit their own purposes, granting longer terms for themselves and other sitting legislators -- leaving voters with little choice but to reject such a blatant power grab.


Schwarzenegger enjoyed a pretty good working relationship with the two legislative leaders, but not so great that he had to back such a measure. Now that they will be termed out in December, he will be better off. After all, if Proposition 93 had passed, Nunez would have remained in office until 2016, and Perata would have been there until 2012, while the governor will be out in January 2011. As a lame duck, Schwarzenegger’s power would have ebbed at a time when the two Democratic leaders were still very much in control.

The defeat of Proposition 93, therefore, gives Schwarzenegger new maneuvering room in dealing with the difficult issues ahead, especially the $14.5-billion deficit. He can form new alliances with the Democrats who will replace Nunez and Perata. Already last week, the Senate Democrats chose Darrell Steinberg to lead them later this year. Because the governor will be dealing with new leaders less set in their ways, he can experiment with new approaches to solving the state’s fiscal problems. And he can refocus his energies on upgrading and expanding California’s water works now that Perata is headed for the exit. Last year, the Senate leader personally blocked Schwarzenegger’s water plan.

Schwarzenegger still has work to do in repairing his relationship with the Republican Party. GOP activists blasted his endorsement of Proposition 93 last month, and at least 60% of Republicans voted no on the measure.

Much of this was a direct consequence of the clumsy way Schwarzenegger endorsed Proposition 93. For three years, he repeatedly said that he’d support a new term-limits law only if legislators put a measure on the ballot that would remove the politicians’ power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts. They didn’t, but he endorsed Proposition 93 anyway. The lesson was that you could stick your finger in Schwarzenegger’s eye and he won’t even say ouch.

A governor’s credibility is only as good as his word. If he says one thing and then does the opposite, why should anyone have faith in his pronouncements on such issues as taxes and the budget shortfall? Republicans who once believed Schwarzenegger’s “no term limits without redistricting reform” promise surely have less reason today to believe his “no new taxes” vow.

Now, with the defeat of Proposition 93, how should Schwarzenegger rebuild his credibility with voters and Republican legislators?

Let’s begin with taxes. Schwarzenegger has said he will not raise taxes to help close the budget deficit. He needs to repeat this vow and make it clear to Democratic legislators that he means it. In this regard, the governor is lucky that his healthcare reform plan died in the state Senate in January. Had it survived and made it to the November ballot, Schwarzenegger would have had to stump for new tobacco taxes and business fees to help finance it, which would have undercut his credibility on opposing tax increases.

A fresh “no new taxes” pledge would force the Legislature to confront the real fiscal crisis -- the state’s budget is largely on autopilot, with spending rising even as revenues lag. Schwarzenegger halfheartedly embraced this approach in his State of the State address last month and in his message calling for an emergency legislative session on the budget deficit. Now, with the current legislative leadership weakened by the defeat of Proposition 93, he can drive home the problem of excessive state spending and achieve the long-term structural reform that most experts believe would end California’s boom-and-bust budgetary cycles.

With term-limits reform off the table, Schwarzenegger also can concentrate on redistricting reform. He has endorsed an initiative that would give the mapmaking job to a 14-member commission, which would redraw the state’s legislative districts according to a strict set of criteria after each national census. The plan has not yet qualified for the November ballot.

If it does, Schwarzenegger would enjoy a key advantage in getting the redistricting initiative passed. Legislators termed out because of Proposition 93’s defeat will have no personal stake in how their districts will be redrawn after the 2010 census, and therefore will be more likely to not oppose the reform.

But before any of this can happen, Schwarzenegger will need to rebuild his political credibility, a commodity he badly wasted on Proposition 93, which the public refused to have anything to do with.