After more than six years of carving up and flushing what used to be referred to as the California Dream, the Governor has looked around at the wreckage and decided to float the story that it wasn't his doing. Many have obediently picked up the narrative and amplified it through the press and online. The story, as set out, for instance, in the New York Times, goes: the Governor is a real independent, neither a rabid left-wing Democrat nor a salivating Tea Partier and, therefore, no one loves him any more. Somehow, even as he stands in the rubble of California, Arnold has spun this to be a good thing, when, instead, he is an embodiment of what Texas gadfly Jim Hightower meant when he said, "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."
The New York Times lauds the Arnold for tackling issues that have "bedeviled lawmakers for centuries". They conveniently skip, however, that announcing you are taking something on and getting anything done are two different things. He has, incredibly, managed to paint himself as the hapless victim of a stubborn legislature, when the opposite is true.
The Times credits him with taking on water "storage" issues, but, in fact, all he did was insist on more and more expensive dams and less and less conservation. He was also the midwife of an unworkable water bond, another of his "give this to me or I won't ever sign a budget" ploys, which would shift the cost of private water benefits to the taxpaying public and, because of that, probably won't even see the ballot. They credit him with taking on the prison system, conveniently leaving out that he fought the courts over every mandate to end overcrowding and institute more humane treatment. The New York Times says he "tried" to reform government but Californians know the truth: the public saw right through his ill-thought-out proposals and defeated them all.
Legacy? It's all bloviation.
Then There's the Myth That He Was Blocked By Recalcitrant Lawmakers
From the beginning, Arnold Schwarzenegger has exhibited a woeful ignorance about the role of a Governor and the role of governance. Early on, not having studied the three branches of government or "checks and balances" in elementary school, he seemed stunned to realize that the Legislature had to vote on changes in the law, thinking he could unilaterally issue Executive Orders to cut taxes, overturn the environmental protections of the California Environmental Protection Act, sweep away regulations imposed on businesses, and lessen consumer protections to enhance business activity in the state. His economic and regulatory approach was all conservative Republican: shrink government, blame state workers for excesses, insist that "fraud, waste and abuse" could be rooted out and used to balance the budget.
Flush with what looked like a scarily big numerical mandate in the special election that swept him in (a small percentage of California voters, however), he muscled a shell-shocked legislature into ending the individually small but numerically huge Vehicle License Fee that few taxpayers realized they'd been paying since 1941. Instantly, he had blown a multi-billion dollar hole in state revenues that has been a great part of the ongoing stubborn deficit.
In addition, over the next few years, he steadfastly refused, in each and every budget season, to agree to any budget that raised a tax on corporations, such as an oil extraction tax on drawing oil out of California land (as is imposed in every other oil-producing state....Sarah Palin signed a huge tax on the oilies in Alaska). Indeed, he refused to even consider the budget a few years ago unless the top 9 or 10 corporations in California got an arcane tax-choice provision that saved them billions over what they had been paying to California. In only one year out of the six dire ones just passed did he agree to a tax increase, and it was on the sales tax, the most regressive tax, for two years only. It could do little to fill the holes he had already blown in the budget. With no way to increase revenues, the legislature agreed when the Governor insisted on borrowing to fill some of the gaping maw, which only exacerbated the situation, as California's debt service grew and grew.
Every one of these decisions resulted in cuts to education and the social services safety net, which is now so tattered, it can no longer be called a net. Far from being blocked in his "dreams" by the legislature, he has simply said "no" and waited for them to cave, as poor people and state workers went months without income, and finally couldn't live any more without their monthly pay. From the beginning, he refused to meet with individual lawmakers, insisting on Big Five meetings behind closed doors. He let the Republican leadership in both houses have their way with cuts (California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds vote on the budget, as well as a two-thirds vote to raise taxes), never working to bring them on board with a less draconian budget solution and, thus, handing power to a tiny and conservative minority.
To add insult to injury, after Republican members had sold their two or three votes in exchange for guts to environmental protections and cuts to education and social services, Arnold insisted on even more cuts as his own price for signing a budget, cuts to vital services, and cuts to corporate taxes. All of this has taken California down the rat hole and I say the blame lies squarely with him.
The Myth of the Jolly (not so) Green Giant
One of the myths Arnold has floated out to the world is the story of his wonderful environmental credentials. He takes credit for Senator Fran Pavley's greenhouse gas bill that is now under attack in the November election in an initiative sponsored and funded by Texas oil companies. However, virtually minutes after he signed AB 32 and had multiple press conferences touting this act, he issued an Executive Order undermining the center of the bill, which was environmental regulation of greenhouse gases, and, instead, insisted on joining a multi-state cap and trade system, creating a market for pollution. This solution was allowed in AB 32, but only after stricter regulations were in place.
In addition, in every single budget negotiation, he has insisted on "waiving" (read: doing away with) the requirements of the California Environmental Protection Act for big construction projects. He adopted and further promulgated the myth that analyzing the environmental effects of projects (which is all CEQA does) was tantamount to stopping them and that, therefore, that step should be skipped.
Again, apparently not caring if folks ever get the checks that keep them alive and healthy, he has adamantly refused to sign budgets until these demands are met. The Legislature caves again and again, as lawmakers are faced with the real effects on their constituents of not having a budget.
So Go Ahead, Blame The Governor
Aided by columnists engaged in echo journalism on Why California Is Failing, the public has embraced the myth that California is ungovernable because of the two-thirds vote on the budget and a separate two-thirds vote on raising a tax; because of term limits; because of Prop 13; because of the financial meltdown. There is no question that each of these is a grave problem for California and should be amended and addressed.....by voting yes on Prop 25 this year, by splitting Prop 13 into continuing strong protections for homeowners but making business pay their fair share, by regulating financial institutions more strongly.
This set of circumstances, however, was no different for governors who came before Schwarzenegger. The question the press and the public should be asking is: "Would we have been better off with a different Governor, one who understood the role of government and worked with the Legislature and others for better outcomes?"
I say the answer is yes. Both Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were faced with Prop 13, term limits, a recession, and two-thirds votes. Yet each managed to govern without inflicting the pain Arnold has loosed on the people of California. There is no room for amateurism in government. By flailing through the china shop, the current Governor has knocked California's public education system into the basement, so diminished the public higher education system it will take decades to begin to recruit great faculty and provide adequate classes again, and gutted services to the poor and elderly so deeply, there has never been a greater gap in California between the poor and the rich. Sadly, it didn't need to be like this.
In the end, there's only one man who has to say yes to the budget presented by the Legislature. And if that man could care less about the well-being of Californians, if he says he can wait forever until he gets his way, then the blame for the devolution of California rests with him.
And all this from a guy whose exceptional health status when he came to America was due to socialized medicine.
Sheila James Kuehl
Sheila James Kuehl was appointed to the California Integrated Waste Management Board on December 1, 2008, after having served eight years in the State Senate and six years in the State Assembly. Senator Kuehl served as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee from 2000-2006. Her website is www.sheilakuehl.org