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.
You're not blowing up the boxes, I say. "We will," Schwarzenegger says, noting his plan to improve the California Youth Authority and Department of Corrections office. So, for the Terminator 2005, "blowing up" means making bureaucracies work better. Besides, he adds, state government has to grow to accommodate a larger state population.
Some Republicans see this more reasonable tone as a betrayal. But there is a method to his saneness. For one thing, Schwarzenegger gets the math. "We are very ambitious," he noted, "but of course when you work with 120 legislators, everyone's hacking and chipping away and it slows down the process. The advantage that we have is democracy, but the disadvantage is it's not a dictatorship."
So the big, bold move Schwarzenegger now cites is something that many critics see as a gimmick. He has proposed ballot measures to reform the pension system (not now, but later), improve education, redraw legislative districts and reform the state budget process. The latter two areas are most important to him.
Schwarzenegger noted that it is wrong that Sacramento can raid transportation money instead of cutting spending elsewhere to balance the budget. Yes, he raided those funds, too, but only because past practices forced him to. Now, if he has his way, there will be a ceiling beyond which Sacramento cannot raise spending, and future governors and legislators won't be able to dip into school and transportation coffers.
As Schwarzenegger put it, "If the Democrats say, 'We want to raise taxes,' then the Republicans say, 'no.' And so out came borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, borrowing. It created the $22 billion debt that I've inherited. So what I'm saying is, this year, let's get to the source, to what created this problem."
I am not on board with the initiative approach. If Sacramento could get around Propositions 98 and 42, Sacramento will be able to get around this measure, too. Future lawmakers will find loopholes, or they'll sneak language into other initiatives that weaken any real reform. You can't wall up every crack in a creaky wall.
The answer isn't an initiative, but political resolve. He's a bodybuilder. He should understand self-discipline.
Besides, the Legislative Analyst noted, the state budget is troublesome because too much spending is on "autopilot." Schwarzenegger shouldn't fix a warped mechanism by adding onto the auto-spending.
His response: "Autopilot is not the evil. It's the autopilot that makes you spend more money than you have that makes the evil." I like that, even though I know his scheme can't work.
So the big man's big reform is: "Narrow the areas where they can create gimmicks."
His gimmick is fewer gimmicks.
Give the man this much: It was after Schwarzenegger garnered the signatures to put workers' compensation on the ballot that Sacramento passed compromise workers' compensation legislation. For him, the initiative is a bargaining chit.
Another Arnold-ism: "I've always said, if the legislators don't do the job, the people will."
I like voters, too, but in 1998 and 2002, voters sent a herd of legislators dominated by hard-left Democrats to Sacramento. Afterward, voters shouldn't have been shocked and outraged that government spending spiked and, when the tax revenue ran dry, the Golden State was swimming in red.
Voters loved Schwarzenegger's bravado about cutting waste, but when he prepares to hack away at big-ticket items like state and local pensions, his popularity sags.
The Dems deride the gov's gimmicks, even though their only trick is to raise taxes. Or should I say raise taxes, then still spend more than they have?
Don't root against Schwarzenegger: If he loses, then the whole state loses.
Schwarzenegger said that he isn't weak. He looks at the next round of the budget game as "another squat with 500 pounds." He never expected it to be easy, and these days he has stopped trying to make it sound easy.