Governor regrets ‘outsider’ positions

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Times Staff Writer

Reflecting on four years as the state’s chief executive, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday that he now regrets a number of the policies he championed in his early days in office and acknowledges his own rhetoric was at times overheated and naive.

During an unusually self-reflective interview with Times editors and reporters, the governor no longer talked like the outsider he portrayed when he campaigned to recall his predecessor from office in 2003.

In that campaign, he labeled many state legislators as inept. Now, he spoke of how it would be a “disaster” for term limits to force some of the same politicians from their offices. He scoffed at the notion that ridding the state of the “waste, fraud and abuse” he railed against in his early days would actually do much to help California’s finances. He no longer insists that the state’s troubled schools can be repaired without spending more.


“I have learned a lot of things where I felt one way before I went into office, and all of a sudden you learn things are not quite this way and you change,” he said. “People call it flip-flopping. I would rather flip-flop when I see something is a wrong idea than get stuck with it and stay with it and [keep making] the same mistake.”

The interview came as the governor toured the state, lobbying for the budget plan he unveiled last week. Schwarzenegger is once again confronting a $14-billion shortfall -- the same size as the shortfall in his first budget -- despite promises during his first term that California would never again fall into such bad financial shape.

His plans for balancing the budget are familiar: aggressive spending cuts coupled with a hard cap on spending in years when revenues rise, a proposal that resembles the one he made when he first came to office.

But the pitch is very different. Gone is the bluster and braggadocio. The governor, who came armed with his trademark charts illustrating the upward spiral of state spending, spoke softly, looking tired from a week of explaining to community groups, business associations and editorial boards why he believes that the state needs to close 48 parks, release tens of thousands of inmates early and roll back or eliminate healthcare programs for the needy.

Asked why he no longer was promising to close the shortfall by cutting fat from government, Schwarzenegger took a stance sharply at odds with his first-year statements.

“If you look at the $14.5 billion we need, you don’t even have to look there,” he said. “You are not even going to find 1% there.”


The governor suggested that the proposal he made early in his tenure to save money by eliminating dozens of state boards and commissions reflected political inexperience.

“People just love to hold on to those because it gives them a chance to appoint someone,” he said. “Both parties came to me and said, ‘You are out of your mind.’ Like I was totally insane. . . . I didn’t want to stop all the other things I wanted to get done just because of this.

“There were a lot of things when you go in as an outsider that you learn you can’t do,” Schwarzenegger said.

Getting things done, the governor said he has learned, is not as simple as replacing career politicians with outsiders like him.

This week, Schwarzenegger endorsed an initiative on the February ballot that would increase the number of years lawmakers could spend in one house of the Legislature. The move drew fire from some of his former allies who back term limits. But in the interview, Schwarzenegger said his earlier enthusiasm for short limits was misguided.

“I originally felt strongly it was the greatest thing ever done,” he said. “I despised the idea of these guys being so locked in and safe and all this in their positions, and staying up in Sacramento doing deals. . . .”


Now, he said, his view of term limits has changed.

“I have been there for four years, and I say, ‘Oh my God, this is a disaster.’

“The special interests and lobbyists up there are so much more sophisticated and so much more advanced than the politicians are,” the governor said. “So who is it really helping? I am seeing this firsthand. The people I finally got used to working with now will be kicked out.”

The governor remains firm in his position, held throughout his administration, that the state cannot tax its way out of budget problems.

But he also talked about investing more in some of the same government programs he once complained were bloated and inefficient.

The message has ceased to be that schools can do more with less.

Now, he said, properly reforming the state’s education system could come with a hefty price tag.

Because of the need for funds, Schwarzenegger said, he would put off his plans for an ambitious overhaul of the state educational system until more money is available.

“We have to analyze and bring everyone in the education community together and look at all the reforms and look at if that means we need extra money to do all those things,” the governor said.


“To say: ‘The funding we leave off the table completely . . . because we don’t have any money, but we want to do those reforms,’ that is not the way it works.”