Who’s to blame for Schwarzenegger’s mess? Schwarzenegger

After more than six years of systematically gutting the California dream, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now pushing the idea that he’s not to blame for the wreckage — and the media seem to be swallowing it.

The New York Times recently lionized him in its Week in Review, saying that his “accomplishments — particularly as a Republican in an ever-blue state — have been significant, largely bipartisan and likely to have a lasting impact on the state.”

As evidence to support its theory, the newspaper lauded his work on issues such as water and governmental reform.

In truth, the governor’s water “solutions” rely almost solely on building expensive dams rather than on water conservation. He is also the midwife of an unworkable water bond, another of his “give this to me or I won’t sign the budget” ploys. The bond would shift the cost of private water benefits to the taxpaying public and, because of that, probably won’t even make it to the ballot.

He insists that he tried to reform government, but Californians saw through his ill-thought-out proposals and defeated most of them at the polls.

In this newspaper, columnist George Skelton recently wrote a column headlined “Don’t blame the governor.” Although he acknowledged that Schwarzenegger “blew opportunities and squandered superstardom,” Skelton also insisted that the governor “doesn’t deserve his record-low poll numbers.” Why? Skelton maintained that Schwarzenegger shouldn’t be blamed for the state’s woes because the state is essentially ungovernable thanks to legislative term limits, Proposition 13 and the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote to pass a budget.

That mantra, currently being repeated everywhere, doesn’t hold water. It completely ignores the fact that the two previous governors faced exactly the same set of circumstances and actually governed without taking California down the drain.

Schwarzenegger paints himself as the hapless victim of a stubborn legislature when the opposite is true. From the beginning, he exhibited a woeful ignorance about what governors actually do. Not having studied the three branches of government or checks-and-balances in elementary school, he seemed stunned to realize that the Legislature had to agree to change the law.

One of his first acts was to muscle the Legislature, which was shell-shocked from his victory in a special recall election, into rolling back vehicle license fees. By that act alone, he blew a multibillion-dollar hole in state revenues, ensuring the stubborn deficit that has plagued the state budget since.

In the years since, he has refused to agree to any budget that included tax hikes on corporations. That has meant that California still doesn’t have an oil-extraction tax, unlike virtually every other oil-producing state. He refused to even consider the budget a few years ago unless the top few corporations in California got an arcane tax-choice provision that saved them billions. In only one year out of the six dire ones since he took office has he agreed to any kind of tax increase, and then only for the sales tax, the state’s most regressive tax, and only for two years.

His support for tax cuts at the same time he refused to support anything that would raise significant revenues has devastated education and the social services safety net. Far from being blocked from accomplishing his dreams by the Legislature, he has simply said no and waited for lawmakers to cave. He let Republican legislators insist on cutting spending on poor people and schools and then held out for even more cuts as the price of his signature on the budget. All of this has taken California down the rat hole, and I say the blame lies squarely with Schwarzenegger.

Then there’s the myth of his environmental credentials. He constantly takes credit for state Sen. Fran Pavley’s (D-Agoura Hills) greenhouse gas bill, AB 32. However, virtually minutes after signing it, he issued an executive order undermining the center of the bill, which was environmental regulation, and, instead, signed California into a free-market oriented, cap-and-trade system for polluters.

In addition, every year he has insisted that big construction projects be exempted from the requirements of the California Environmental Protection Act and refused to sign a budget unless these demands were met. Lawmakers, faced with the real-life needs of the poor and kids in school, have caved.

There is no room for amateurism in government, and this governor is an amateur. He has knocked California’s public education system into the basement, diminished the state’s higher education system to the point that it will take decades to recover, and gutted services to the poor, further exacerbating the gap between poor and rich in this state. It didn’t have to be like this.

In the end, one person controls whether or not there will be a California budget. And if that person couldn’t care less about the well-being of Californians, if he says he can wait forever until he gets his way, then we must blame him for the devolution of California.

Sheila James Kuehl is a former California state senator and founding director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College.