Two-ring circus, no real ringleader

Posted: Oct 06, 2003 12:00 AM

Former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson got philosophical as he mused about the conundrum known as Gov. Gray Davis: "The one thing that has truly mystified me about him is that he's not stupid, far from it, but he seems incapable of making hard decisions."

As California seems poised to fire Davis and replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscleman should ask himself if he wants to spend three years making hard decisions, as the job requires. So far, he hasn't demonstrated that he can.

As a campaigner, Ah-nold has been too eager to please. He promises to cut spending and then tells the audience that he wants to spend more money -- send more to local governments, for example -- without raising taxes. At Tuesday's San Francisco press conference, Schwarzenegger talked at length about how he'd like to increase workers' compensation benefits -- a nice goal some day, but it conflicts mightily with his campaign pledge to decrease workers' comp premiums, pronto.

On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger signaled that he was willing to take on the California Legislature. He said that in his first day in office, he would cancel the $4 billion car-tax increase. Then, he would call a special session to push the Legislature to cut spending and give "legislators one last chance to repeal'' a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses next year.

Schwarzenegger's personal determination is a big selling point. Every dream Mr. Universe has had, he has pursued and won. Thus, a poor immigrant with a thick accent became one of the world's best-known actors. He may become governor. But if he wins, he'll be in charge of a dream with more moving parts than anything he has ever managed before.

Ah, the Legislature. As Davis aide Roger Salazar noted, "If there were a mechanism to recall the entire Legislature, it would pass in a instant. But there isn't, so who gets the heat? Gray Davis."

Assembly and Senate Democrats live in a la-la land. They think they can spend and spend, and only rich people and smokers will be subject to higher taxes. Sacramento Repubs can't stop the Dems from overspending, but they did remove the only real disincentive to big spending -- unpopular tax hikes -- when they proposed unconstitutional deficit spending.

The last state budget was so phony that it's tied up in legal wrangling. Lawsuits now challenge $13 billion in bonds that float last year's operating debt. If those lawsuits prevail, add that $13 billion to the $8 billion shortfall already written into next year's budget. Add the $4 billion car-tax hike everyone promises to rescind, and you have one-quarter of the state budget.

Practically everyone is telling voters they shouldn't have to pay a higher car tax. As soon as he announced he was a gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante said he'd eliminate the car-tax increase -- although he later stipulated he would keep the car tax for expensive cars. GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock pledged to dump the car tax, too.

Even Gray Davis has said he opposes the tax hike -- despite the fact that his own finance director instigated it. Davis aides are quick to point out that Davis had proposed a budget with different tax hikes, but state lawmakers rejected it.

So Davis, the Assembly and Senate ended up passing a package that piles debt on debt. "They're wrong legally,'' said Harold Johnson of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is suing to stop billions in deficit bonds, "but they also ought to be ashamed of themselves."

At Tuesday's press conference, journalists from around the world muttered about what a joke the recall election is. Apparently, many believe that they are too good for this story, even though they can't tear themselves away from it.

When comedian Dana Carvey interrupted the press conference for an unwelcome comedic riff, one journalist shot barked, "Is this an election or a circus?''

The answer is: This is an election. The circus is in Sacramento.

The question is: Does Arnold Schwarzenegger want to be another circus act -- like Davis and state lawmakers -- or will he say what Californians need to hear, knowing full well that there are no applause lines?