Debra J. Saunders

The last time I had been in the California governor's inner office for a one-on-one interview, I was meeting with Gov. Gray Davis, who was in deep denial about the impending recall election. I was there again Tuesday to talk to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. How was it different? Well, let's just say that Schwarzenegger keeps his "Conan the Barbarian" sword in a lined box near the head of a long conference table.

 "Go ahead," the governor told me after the interview, "pick it up."

 I wielded the Savage Sword of Conan, although my stomach slice was cut short when it met with the corner of an antique chest. (Warning to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez: Schwarzenegger says that the sword is so heavy that a mere nudge can send a chunk of flesh flying.)

 Schwarzenegger's message: Just because he pulled his support for a pension-reform proposal to move new state and local government workers to a 401(k)-type pension plan, he still aims to reform the system -- he isn't retreating. He just wants a measure that provides for death and disability benefits.

 In his second year in office, this governor is more Sacramento-savvy than the rookie governor who said he didn't want to shuffle the boxes of bureaucracy because "I want to blow them up."

 I ask: How is the budget you presented for the next fiscal year different from what Gray Davis would have done? Schwarzenegger said he didn't want to compare himself with Davis, who, he said, wanted to make more budget cuts.

 (And look where it got him.)

 Despite all the hollering about Schwarzenegger the Knife, the Legislative Analyst's Office sees very few real spending reductions in the $109 billion budget for 2005-2006. Of the $9 billion in what the leg analyst calls "savings," $2.3 billion comes from not returning money to the schools budget -- even still, public school funding will exceed $9,800 per student -- and $1.3 billion comes from a raid of transportation funds. There are about a billion dollars in real cuts made by such steps as freezing cost-of-living increases for the CalWorks grants and disability payments. So where is the ax?

 "Nothing we want to do is drastic," the Austrian Oak explained. The guv doesn't want to roll back health care for needy families, as "it's too brutal." An aide brings a chart into the room, and Schwarzenegger shows how he plans to use gradual spending cuts to close the gap between what the state takes in and what it spends.

Debra J. Saunders

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