by Frank D. Russo --
For the past several years here in California about this time we begin to learn through leaks or otherwise what our dear Governor’s theme is for the upcoming year. Like the teasers you see sitting in the theater before the main show for a blockbuster movie about to be released, we learn that the coming year is about to be the “Year of [fill in the blank].”
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the master of the grand gesture, some call it the grandiose. After the last two years in particular, we can’t afford to have another theme of the year—unless it’s just the year of working with the legislature and getting to know them as individuals and on a one-to-one basis. A bit mundane perhaps—but it seems to me perhaps just in time.
This year was supposed to be the “Year of Education.” Part of the rollout for this was a much anticipated report from the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence. Much heralded, the report recommended significant action items. We wrote about it in March and it received a lot of ink and other media coverage. But like cotton candy which tastes great for a few fleeting seconds and then disappears, here we are a few months later and the entire website (www.everychildprepared.org) has been taken down. No progress, just a "this account has been suspended" message. Another unfulfilled promise from this administration.
This report is not only gathering dust on some shelf somewhere, but in fact, education funding has been cut in this year’s budget and is on the chopping block again. Not only K-12 education but our colleges and universities. Just last week there were headlines about the California State University system cutting enrollment by 10,000 students in the upcoming year. This is our future, an educated workforce. We are eating our seed corn.
It’s not just the social contract with young Californians—qualified for admission by their grades and academic accomplishments in high school and the promise made by the state — that is being broken here, but those of us later in life who are dependent on a trained workforce in nursing and other services and on these new workers having good jobs to pay taxes are being shortchanged. Pennywise and pound foolish. But there you have it with the “Year of Education.”
Remember last year—2007—the “Year of Health Reform” proclaimed by our Governor? He managed to work with Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez—and there was a valiant effort to pass a comprehensive health coverage plan for Californians. But aside from working with the Assembly leadership — to be commended — our Governor spent much of the year traveling up and down the state before selected groups in settings perfect lighting and staging trying to sell his plan in the media. In 2008, hanging over from the year it was supposed to be, the Schwarzenegger-Nunez bill failed passage in the California Senate. The Governor has twice vetoed universal health care in the form of a single payer plan passed by the legislature. We are holding dust on this one—and perhaps a few minor reforms.
At the end of 2008, less Californians are covered for health benefits. They are being cut as we are in a recession or depression — just the time they are needed. What would have happened if the Governor has personally sat down with groups of legislators, gotten to know them, maybe even had, shock of all shock, some public meetings with them to discuss this issue?
We need some real meat and potatoes solutions now for California’s budget and the future of our state. We’ve just had a year with a record number of vetoes by a Governor, many with a generic one size fits all veto message. To cap it off is the Governor’s flip remark last week after the failure of Republicans to vote for a budget solution with half cuts and half revenue parts, calling the legislature a bunch of kindergarten kids. Like his insult of years past, calling legislators “girly men,” this doesn’t advance the cause — unless it is deflecting blame from himself and making others look bad. Like his special election of 2005 when he fell flat on his face trying to get ballot measures passed, going around the legislature with propositions placed on the ballot and a campaign funded by big contributors, this isn’t leadership.
It isn’t leadership unless one is into symbolic gestures. Some in the media have talked about the big success Schwarzenegger has had on Prop 11 on redistricting. That this is the biggest claim to success he has had this last year — a notch in his belt — is telling indeed. I have never subscribed to the dire warnings of those who have written about passage of Prop 11 nor to the overrated claims of the changes it will make in California politics and the development of sound public policy. It may create a few more competitive seats — beginning in 2012 after the next census. Political theorists can debate whether it made a real difference—for better or worse — during the next decade. But it doesn’t help us through the rough patch we are in now and during the remaining two years of the Schwarzenegger regime.
In Rome they had bread and circuses. Nero fiddled while it burned. In the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette said "Let them eat cake." There is now talk of an “open primary” as if that is a panacea for our problems. If this is the kind of ethereal pursuits our Governor focuses on and he is unwilling to tackle the real problems our state faces that are difficult to solve, we will have precisely what Professor Murray Edelman wrote about in, "The Symbolic Uses of Politics" — a symbolic gesture that is a lot easier to achieve and will make people feel good.
The Governor has been unable to deliver a single Republican vote for budget solutions. It’s time for him to take on a performance with a high degree of difficulty and to spend some time getting to know legislators, especially Republicans, personally. Closed-door meetings with the leadership have not been terribly productive — and that’s probably an understatement. Periodic blanket public denouncements of “the legislature” or “legislators” as a whole have not been productive.
I’m reminded of a comment that a friend of mine who is a mediator has used when one side or both are yelling at each other and taking cheap shots. He turns to the latest offender and says point blank, “Is this getting you anywhere?” He then says nothing further but just looks at the person and around the room. If the Governor can’t play this role, then perhaps we need a professional mediator to help out.
The legislature is not a monolith. There are 120 individuals elected. With Democrats holding 63.75% of the Assembly (51 of 80 seats) and 62.5% of the Senate (25 of 40 seats) three Republican Assemblymembers and two Senators are needed to get anywhere — and those numbers will change a bit with vacancies. But that’s where it’s at for 2009 and we can’t wait for this heavy lifting to be done. If you can’t count to at least 54 in the Assembly and 26 in the Senate, remember what my friend the mediator asked.
If we are looking for longer structural changes that will bring about results, repealing the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget is what we should be looking at. Blaming the majority party doesn’t help. California cannot in the long run continue to be governed under minority rule where a few individuals can put a wrench in the gears of state government. But until then, like the great leaders this country has had—personified by Lyndon Johnson who broke down filibusters in the 60’s to secure civil rights and other great changes—one-by-one legislators need to be figured out by the Governor. After that, we can have the luxury of years that don’t turn out the way they are proclaimed.
By Frank Russo, Publisher, The California Progress Report
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