Governor Schwarzenegger's act is no longer very amusing. I freely admit to chuckling over the way he booted the miserable Gray Davis from office. And I have smiled while he has charmed or bullied whoever stood in the way of his being taken seriously as the governor of the biggest state in the union. But Arnold's recent hard turn to the economic right and his proposals to slap sacrifices only on the bottom half of the population are hardly a laughing matter. Yes, the draconian cuts in social-welfare and education programs proposed in his new budget will eventually be softened by the Democratic Legislature. But the problem isn't so much with what the governor is proposing. It's more what he's not proposing. In a word: taxes. In a phrase: taxes on the wealthy. It's a monumental failure of nerve from a guy who has built both his movie and his political careers as a fearless take-action hero. Schwarzenegger's enormous (and often well-earned) popularity allows him to ponder taking just about any issue he chooses directly to the voters - and win. In the best tradition of Nixon-going-to-China, no California politician is now better positioned than Arnold to come before the cameras, and the voters, and explain that when you balance a budget, you not only cut costs, but you also raise revenues. What a mark Arnold could make on history by once and for all smashing the crackpot notion that our troubled state can somehow maintain its greatness without ever again raising taxes. Instead, Arnold is asking Californians to accept as much as $5 billion in public-education cuts over the next couple of years. And that's downright insulting. A RAND Corp. report in early January showed California schools to be near the bottom of the nation by nearly every objective measurement of student achievement, funding, teacher qualifications and school facilities. What does Arnold propose? A nosedive to the very bottom? I suppose the only good news is that there's not much room left to fall, as student achievement in our state now ranks above only Louisiana and Mississippi, and a full one-third of our schools are dilapidated or in disrepair. Teachers' salaries, adjusted for inflation, have not risen for three decades and now average a measly $39,000 a year - the lowest among the five biggest states and an embarrassing 32nd nationwide. Does the governor believe this catastrophe can be remedied by cutting teachers' pensions, increasing classroom size and choking off more per capita funding? Will student performance be boosted by lopping off more art and music classes and by forcing math teachers to gamble their retirement funds in private 401(k)s while abolishing their fixed retirement guarantee? Where's all that amped-up courage the governor can supposedly muster when it comes to defending the future of California's children? One of the most repugnant acts of former Governor Davis was his spending of millions in taxpayer money on a white-shoe law firm hired to intimidate and rebuff student plaintiffs suing the state for unequal treatment of poor schools. Arnold's threatening to become just as big a putz. Who says, anyway, the wealthy won't pay more for better schools? They do it every day - as long as it is for their kids. This is one "problem" that can be fixed by those loaded with a heap of money. Yearly tuition in the string of private prep schools that lace the Westside now tops 20 grand a year - and each one has a long waiting list of anxious parents willing to do just about anything to get their offspring enrolled (including ponying up thousands more in construction and endowment donations). Tuition, by the way, is just about triple the amount that niggardly California public schools now spend on each student. So with the comfortable and the blessed willing to pay a cool quarter-million dollars just to get each one of their own children from K through to 12 (and then an equal dollop for four years of the Ivy League), why does this state hesitate at all to spread some of our economic sacrifice upward? Feigheit, of course, is the answer. Cowardice. Some admirers of the governor tell me to calm down and be more patient. They assure me that Arnold's just craftily biding his time, waiting for his second term to boldly rip off his Ayn Randian disguise and come out as a tax-raising Superman for California. I'd like to think so, but frankly I'm beginning to doubt it. Arnold seems ever more in the thrall of the supply-side ideologues who helped initiate our state's educational slide when they came up with Proposition 13 three decades ago. And the governor's definition of "special interests," meanwhile, seems woefully limited to Indians, teachers and nurses. Can Arnold show real guts only when paid $20 million onscreen? Will he turn out to be the biggest girlie-man in town?
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