In everything Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done, from his dazzling ascent into office to his most dismal defeats, he has relied on a simple credo: Follow the will of the people, and restore their trust in government.
Now, as he asks voters to put their faith in a slate of ballot measures crafted in back rooms of the Capitol to deal with the state’s fiscal crisis, the governor’s formula is working against him. Californians, after years of unfulfilled promises, say they do not trust their state leaders or their prescriptions for balancing the budget.
Schwarzenegger, who said he would take Sacramento back from the politicians, has in the eyes of many become one of them instead.
“He represented that he was a new force and a fresh face,” said Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, who criticizes the governor for supporting higher taxes. “But it appears to be indistinguishable these days from any of the other people that are saying they are running the show.”
Nearly six years into Schwarzenegger’s tenure, the state’s fiscal crisis is worse than when he arrived, and his popularity has been declining precipitously since early last year. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California put his approval rating at 34%, just above half of what it was in 2004.
And this week, the governor proposed two dire budget plans, one requiring politically painful cuts even if the ballot measures pass, the other calling for more severe steps if they fail.
Schwarzenegger has been delivering a simple message recently: Trust us and support Propositions 1A through 1E, or the consequences for schools, prisons, fire services and more will be devastating.
The measures were negotiated by the governor and legislative leaders in a marathon session in February, and approved without public hearings.
Through tax increases, changes to the lottery and reallocation of voter-approved money for mental health and childhood education, they would generate nearly $6 billion for the state budget for the coming fiscal year.
Many voters don’t understand the propositions’ crazy quilt of provisions, drafted to please different politicians and constituencies, and some see them as another empty promise. David Wells, 64, a retired procurement officer from Hawthorne, said the measures seem like elected officials’ way of pawning off their responsibilities onto the people they represent.
“What’s the governor’s function if it isn’t to control normal, everyday spending of the state?” Wells asked.
Most personal for Schwarzenegger is Proposition 1A, which contains a rainy-day fund and spending cap that he says would stabilize a state budget prone to extreme surpluses and deficits, depending on the economy. He has blamed special interests for convincing voters and legislators to reject similar proposals in the past.
“We are trying again to say to the people of California, ‘Please help us,’ ” Schwarzenegger said this week at a Los Angeles area senior center. “We understand that they are angry, the people are angry at Sacramento. But they should not let that anger out on killing those [propositions], because what they will do is hurt their local communities.”
Jean Ross, executive director of the California Citizens Budget Project, said there is a “high skepticism factor” about Schwarzenegger’s rainy-day fund, because voters already approved such a fund at his request in 2004, in Proposition 58, which even the governor concedes was flawed.
“Voters are being told this will solve all their problems, or all of the state’s budget problems,” Ross said. “That’s something they’ve heard before.”
This was not the way Schwarzenegger wanted it to be. He ran in the 2003 recall as a political outsider leading a populist revolution to remake a Sacramento that had fallen out of touch with Californians.
On the night of his election, amid voter anger over the energy crisis, a vehicle license fee increase and other issues, Schwarzenegger said he would work “to bring back the trust in government itself.” He branded himself “the People’s Governor,” and has since spoken of “the people” as if they were a revered but tempestuous uncle whom he tries, not always successfully, to please.
In breaking with fellow Republicans on healthcare, the environment and other issues, Schwarzenegger said it was more important to him to give the people what they wanted than to satisfy his party.
After voters thrashed a set of special election proposals he championed in 2005 to overhaul state government, Schwarzenegger apologized to the people, cleaned house in his administration and changed his style. Last year, he endorsed an effort to revise legislative term limits, but when Californians rejected it he applauded them, saying lawmakers had not earned the people’s trust.
But the governor’s stewardship has not built trust in Bobby Corbin, 31, a computer network administrator from Torrance, who said he had not decided how to vote on the propositions Tuesday.
Corbin said that he needed to do more research but that he could not support them blindly based on pleas from elected officials, including the governor, who have not proved right in the past.
Corbin recalled Schwarzenegger’s promises to bring California jobs and businesses. Now, he said, unemployment is climbing and “we’re going to the federal government begging for money.”
“He has had time to prove something, to show something, and it has not been positive, from what I’ve seen,” Corbin said. “I don’t know what goes on in the meetings behind closed doors.
“Maybe they’re coming up with some grand plan,” he said, “but, I mean, the fact is Californians are suffering, waiting on things to happen.”