The state of ambition

IT’S ONE THING for the governor to be ambitious. Arnold Schwarzenegger came from Hollywood, where success is impossible without ambition. It’s quite another thing for the Legislature, which has historically rewarded timidity and resistance, to match his audacity. Yet that’s exactly what will have to happen for California to reach the heights Schwarzenegger set for it in his State of the State speech Tuesday.

It is certainly audacious, for instance, for a governor to claim that his state can show the United States, China and the rest of the world how to free themselves from dependence on OPEC and fossil fuels. But Schwarzenegger called for nothing less. He proposed new standards that require lower carbon emissions and encourage alternative fuels while letting the market allow producers to make their own decisions about how to comply. If successful, the state would see a 10% reduction in greenhouse gases from motor vehicles by 2020. It’s a bold and creative move.

So, too, is his proposal to remake the state’s healthcare system to assure that the cost of caring for those who do not have insurance does not continue to fall squarely on those who do have it. His proposal has problems, but he deserves credit for putting the issue on the agenda and remaining flexible on details and open to discussion.

Schwarzenegger also has vowed to fix problems with the state’s prisons. To his credit, he has acknowledged that simply building more cells will not, by itself, solve the problem. But cells are needed, and the governor proposes to spend more than $10 billion to build them.

Global warming is expected to greatly reduce the state’s snowpack, which means less water in the future for a growing population. Schwarzenegger proposes $6 billion to store and manage water, including new dams and Delta improvements. The governor also proposes more funding for education and transportation. He insists that California look squarely at its booming population, a changing climate and an increasingly competitive world economy — and that it then face reality and plan accordingly.

Unfortunately, in all the planning the governor’s team seems to have overlooked the effect on the state’s debt. Voters last year approved nearly $43 billion in bonds, a record, to begin rebuilding the state for the future. Now the governor is seeking an even larger amount. Schwarzenegger’s vision fits the state perfectly when the economy is booming. But the economy doesn’t always boom.

The governor’s greatest strength is his infectious, can-do attitude. Many Democrats, almost giddy over the governor’s plans, appear ready to spend. His fellow Republicans are more skeptical. The governor’s task will be to convince members of both parties of the worth of his ambitions — and California’s.