Like a chameleon that changes colors whenever the surroundings change, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back to being a fiscal conservative, even one who seeks what some see as dictatorial powers over state spending.
That’s one underlying meaning of his newest budget and State of the State speech.
It’s not like Californians haven’t seen this version of Schwarzenegger before. What he’s just proposed in the way of increased personal powers for himself and all governors to come is not very different from what he tried in 2005, when he called a special election and spent about 20 million state dollars pushing for passage of Proposition 76. He lost that effort by a wide margin and promptly changed colors.
The 2005 Schwarzenegger proposition sought to cut public school funding below levels required by Proposition 98, passed more than a decade ago by voters determined to make sure education always gets a large slice of the state budget pie. It also would have allowed governors to declare fiscal emergencies whenever revenues fall just 1.5 percent below the governor’s own prior estimates. Once they’d done that, Schwarzenegger and his successors would be allowed to make midyear cuts on their own if state legislators couldn’t agree on them.
That’s authority never granted to presidents or to any previous California governor. Schwarzenegger said it was needed to solve the budget crisis he inherited from ex-Gov. Gray Davis. Of course, he had previously said that crisis would be solved by the $15 billion in budget bonds he pushed one year earlier, which passed.
Now he faces a budget deficit as deep as what he inherited from Davis. But the current one is at least partly his fault. No, Schwarzenegger cannot be blamed for lower capital gains tax revenues in a weak stock market period. But yes, he is responsible for the budget’s loss of more than $4 billion a year in vehicle license fees, a cut he made on his first day in office to fulfill a pandering campaign promise.
He’s also at fault for not “throwing away the credit card” after the 2004 budget bonds passed, as he had promised. Since that time, he’s promoted and helped pass more than $40 billion in bonds, all for projects that could have been planned on a pay-as-you-go basis without the need for interest payments that punch annual holes in the state budget and will for decades to come.
Now he wants the same kind of authority he sought in 2005. Schwarzenegger knows Republicans in the Legislature will not under any circumstance allow him to raise taxes to make up the budget shortfall – which began to arrive soon after he proclaimed last summer that the budget was balanced. He also knows that Democrats will not go along with the across-the-board 10 percent spending cut he proposes.
So he once again says he wants unilateral power to solve things.
The problem is that any Legislature granting such authority would in effect be creating a fiscal dictator. It’s not as though the governor lacks authority in state finance. He has a line item veto he can use to cut out any spending he deems excessive before signing the budget.
But, like the president, once he signs a budget, as things now stand, he has to live with it. He cannot, as he could have in his Proposition 76 proposal three years ago, finagle things by making an artificially high revenue estimate and then assume unilateral budget powers when income doesn’t match that estimate.
President Bush once famously mused that “life would be easier” if he were a dictator. Schwarzenegger appears to have a similar view, repeatedly trying to award himself excessive powers.
He essentially wants to overrule the will of the voters as expressed by passage of ballot measures like Proposition 98 and the much-later Proposition 42, which mandates that gas tax money be spent on transportation and not be diverted to the general fund to pay for many other items.
The steady complaint is that these measures hamstring state financial planners, giving them little freedom of movement. That, of course, is what they are intended to do – assuring that money goes where the voters want it.
Schwarzenegger once again this year is trying to put the “reform” tag on his authoritarian ideas. But his ideas are only reforms if that means reversing the express wishes of the voters – a rather unusual definition of the term, to say the least.