Debate -- and spend

Posted: May 14, 2006 12:05 AM

The standard, if wistful, line among Democratic insiders has been that it doesn't matter whether California state Treasurer Phil Angelides or Controller Steve Westly wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary, because, "You can't beat something with nothing."

I think they are wrong, that Schwarzenegger can be beat after the bruising defeat of all four initiatives he endorsed in November. But Wednesday's debate, sponsored by The San Francisco Chronicle and CBS5-TV, showed that the Dems won't have an easy choice on June 6.

Angelides won the debate -- and I say that as one who thinks that Westly would be a better governor than Angelides. I don't believe in putting style over substance, but primary voters have to consider which hopeful would do better against the Austrian Oak. Angelides likely would be the better debater against Schwarzenegger.

It's too bad that Westly seemed so artificial. Many Californians would love to see a governor who, as Westly said, puts "making California work again" ahead of scoring partisan points. But his voice seemed falsely low and overly modulated. When Westly went into outrage mode over Angelides' hits on him, he looked at the camera, not his opponent. He didn't answer questions as directly as Angelides did.

On hot-button issues like driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, both candidates were to the left of California voters. (Both support the idea.) It is tempting to applaud the two for taking unpopular stands -- except these positions pander to the Democratic base, so they're not really gutsy.

Neither presented a real plan to balance the state's red-ink budget -- and that's where the rubber meets the road in post-recall politics.

No California candidate for governor -- not Westly, not Angelides, not the 2006 sequel of Schwarzenegger -- is willing to tell voters that they can't get more government without raising taxes across the board.

Yes, Angelides says he will raise taxes -- but only on really rich people. It is reckless to increase spending for schools by leaning on this unstable source of tax revenue. Westly is right to accuse Angelides of wanting to tax the middle class, because an economic downturn would force the state to put the squeeze on middle-income workers.

Westly argues that he can improve state finances by going after inefficiencies. Sorry, voters heard that before from Schwarzenegger, who ordered a sweeping performance review of state spending -- only to continue to raise state spending by borrowing money.

You can -- and should -- fault Schwarzenegger for backing away from proposed cuts after Democrats hammered him. Still, the awful truth is that a governor doesn't have much authority on spending. Once Sacramento decides to spend money, on pensions or salaries, the governor can't unilaterally reduce pensions or salaries. He can't even sponsor a bill to reduce pension benefits, because the law -- for good reason -- does not allow employers to take back a promised retirement perk. He can only propose reduced benefits for future workers -- if the Democratic Legislature plays along, instead of hammering him, as the Dems did last year.

When voters pass measures that dedicate funds for various expenditures -- such as after-school programs, as advocated in the Schwarzenegger-sponsored 2002 measure, Proposition 49 -- a governor has even less leverage.

Last year, Schwarzenegger tried to address Sacramento's spending addiction by pushing Proposition 76, which would have limited the growth in state spending, but it failed. This year, apparently, he just wants to win re-election.

There is one glimmer of hope for post-recall politics -- but you won't see it flickering near the Angelides or Westly camps. Both Dems support Proposition 82, the soak-the-rich for universal preschool measure on the June ballot. Schwarzenegger rightly has come out against the measure. Ditto leading Democrats Don Perata, the Senate president pro tem, and John Burton, who held the job before Perata.

Westly says he opposes new taxes -- except this one. Angelides has no problem with taxes for the rich -- even if the program is wrong-headed.

Perata originally supported the measure, but then he realized that it would siphon money and credentialed teachers from K-12. He also understands that when voters mandate spending on pet projects, they create "one of the principle reasons why state government can't function effectively."

Too bad Burton and Perata are not running in this Democratic primary.