By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The new governor’s days as a keeper of promises officially ended with last week’s release of his proposed state budget. At last, Arnold Schwarzenegger had to reveal his choices among the ridiculously contradictory campaign pledges that helped him get elected.
Fundamentally, Schwarzenegger had to choose between cutting services, raising taxes or some combination of the two to close a $15 billion budget deficit next year. For the moment at least, he’s dismissed raising taxes, choosing instead to trim programs and also to impose new fees on the old, young, sick and poor. His proposed $99 billion budget also relies on new borrowing, money transfers, speculative savings and one-time revenues — all in hopes that an improving economy and a more efficient state government will forestall deeper, more painful future cuts.
The denouement was predictable, because something had to give. “You’ve got to go after the programs where the money is,” said Lawrence McQuillan of the San Francisco–based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. “You have to go after health and welfare and education. There’s no alternative.” McQuillan’s organization, which champions free markets and limited government, gave Schwarzenegger an “A+,” mainly because the governor rejected new taxes. Just as he had pledged during the campaign.
But the budget unveiling still made for a jarring departure from much of the rest of the campaign script. Candidate Schwarzenegger had said that he wouldn’t cut education, that he wouldn’t burden the weak, and that he wouldn’t divert money from city and county coffers. He also said he’d cut the car tax and quickly ferret out the “billions and billions” in “waste, fraud and abuse” that other politicians had somehow overlooked for so long. And along the way, he’d cure the state deficit, then tear up the state’s credit card, so California would never again spend more that it had.
Why stop there? At that rate, Schwarzenegger could have pledged to cure the common cold or to ease the heartbreak of psoriasis.
And indeed, at first, newcomer Schwarzenegger swooped in like Reese Witherspoon’s airhead heroine in Legally Blonde 2, who used moxie, underrated intellect and that proverbial heart of gold to overpower overnight a legislature full of jaded, partisan and spent public servants. True to script, Schwarzenegger slew the car-tax increase, and stared down lawmakers till they shredded a new law that would have given illegal immigrants the right to drive. The screenplay for Arnold’s California adventure was right on schedule. It could have debuted in theaters as Legally Austrian or Prometheus Musclebound.
But the car-tax reduction also blew a new, $6.6 billion hole in the state budget over this year and next. It also began to establish the new administration’s priorities — one that put car buyers ahead of other Californians, even if it pains Schwarzenegger’s inner-Clinton to know that, for example, his budget would apparently deny health-care subsidies that were previously available to children with cancer.
Schwarzenegger showed no evidence of pain or strain during Friday’s speech and press conference in Sacramento. His impish grin seemed almost embedded as he chided an Austrian female reporter for invoking the violent metaphor of “blowing up boxes” when asking about plans for budget reform. (At least he didn’t jest about stuffing her head in a toilet.) He then complimented a male reporter for being “really decked out.” And he glowingly implored photographers to shoot his picture while holding a chart that demonstrated how the state has overspent. He bathed in the spotlight, never failing to be likable. He groped no one. And to all appearances, much of the amassed media fell under his spell.
It therefore would have seemed almost churlish to point out his misstatement about the Healthy Families programs. When the governor talked of adding coverage for 20,000 children a year, he didn’t add that 20,000 other children would have to exit first. That’s because his proposed budget enrolls new clients only when children drop out or lose eligibility. Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer corrected the statement this week in a radio interview, while also defending the governor’s approach, noting that a heartless Terminator could have killed the program or reduced funding to past lower levels. “Do you turn back the clock to where [Healthy Families] was five years ago, before the expansion occurred? If you did that, you’d have to throw 180,000 children off the rolls, and the governor wasn’t about to go there.” Never mind that Schwarzenegger promised to enlarge Healthy Families during the campaign and criticized Gray Davis for not expanding it enough.
Nor did the governor mention that his budget would reduce the monthly welfare payment for a family of three in Los Angeles from $704 to $669. But he did offer that “We need to ask everyone to tighten their belt and make some sacrifices” in the next two years. This would include working-class community-college students. Less than a year ago, their classes cost $11 per unit. The unit cost rose to $18 last year under Governor Davis and now would climb to $26 per unit under California’s own compassionate conservative. That’s an increase of 136 percent in all.