Califailure: Steven Greenhut on the governor

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State Address, delivered Wednesday in the Capitol, was a microcosm of his entire failed administration. It was a reminder that those who govern the nation’s most populous state have no clue how to solve the fiscal mess they have created, are drunk on self-congratulation and remain the equivalent of a band of party-goers on the Titanic.

Orange County Register, January 8, 2010

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State Address, delivered Wednesday in the Capitol, was a microcosm of his entire failed administration. It was a reminder that those who govern the nation’s most populous state have no clue how to solve the fiscal mess they have created, are drunk on self-congratulation and remain the equivalent of a band of party-goers on the Titanic. They see the iceberg but have chosen to turn up the music and pop open another bottle of champagne.

California has been mired in a deep recession. Its government cannot even come close to balancing its books. Current deficit predictions hover at around $21 billion despite record tax increases and a recent “historic” budget deal. Unfunded liabilities are soaring. Taxpaying Californians and business owners are high-tailing it to lower-tax and lower-regulation states. Our infrastructure is crumbling. And the state officials who preside over this never-ending mess are downright proud of themselves for all the tough decisions they have made.

I knew the State of the State would be a disaster from the introduction, when Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento made this absurd introduction of the Republican governor: “For all of the inevitable disagreements, for all of the negative attention about California, much of it undeserved, I want to thank the governor for working with his co-equal branch of government, the Legislature, to not only avoid catastrophe last year, $62 billion, but to begin preparing California for the recovery and for the future.”

The governor also believes he and his legislative colleagues accomplished a great deal last year. He led off his speech with a story about all the many pets in his household, including a pig and pony who, apparently, have learned how to get into the Schwarzenegger household’s dog food by using a little teamwork. “The pony has learned to knock the canister off the top of the kennel, and then he and the pig wedge it into the corner,” the governor explained. “There’s this ridge on the lid of the canister, and the pig with his snout pushes this ridge around until it loosens, and then they roll the canister around on the floor until the food spills it out. …. [I]t is the greatest example of teamwork. I love it.”

It’s an example, the governor said, of how “last year, we here in this room did some great things working together.”

I’ll leave the pig and pony jokes to the late-night comedians. But wouldn’t you hate to think about what would have happened had the governor and lawmakers been more at odds?

Steinberg’s introduction and Schwarzenegger’s story make them appear delusional. Their words also are indicative of the governor and his approach to fixing the state government. He has always craved adulation. He sometimes proposed the right solutions to pressing state problems (pension reform, teacher tenure corrections, budget limitations) but he always has backed down as soon as he ran up against partisan pushback. Here’s a guy who came to Sacramento promising to blow up the boxes of government, but who – as a CalWatchdog investigation shows – didn’t follow through with any serious box-exploding reforms. Here’s a guy who proposed important initiative reforms in 2005, then didn’t push too hard for their approval. After getting creamed at the ballot box, he did a 180 and pushed ahead the same old, big-government solutions that never solve anything and always end up making matters worse.

And now … he offers nothing more than gimmicks and silliness that, quite frankly, are the fitting end to a rather silly and gimmick-filled administration, pigs and ponies aside.

As my colleague Anthony Pignataro blurted out as we watched the State of the State, “We are so doomed.” Right he is. What exactly is Schwarzenegger offering in his final year and final chance to fundamentally fix this state? Gimmicks and more gimmicks.

He wants to rely more heavily on federal funds, as if that is free money that will continually flow from D.C. (after being taken from the rest of us and funneled through a wasteful bureaucracy): “Federal funds have to be part of our budget solution because the federal government is part of our budget problem. When President Clinton was in office, California got back 94 cents on the dollar from the federal government. Today, we get only 78 cents back.”

He wants to follow in the footsteps of the Obama administration and throw even more government dollars at the economy for programs that probably won’t do much of anything, not to mention that the level of debt makes any more such spending precarious: “First, you will receive a $500 million jobs package that we estimate could train up to 140,000 workers and help create 100,000 jobs.”

He calls for some good things, but in such vague ways that they will never come to pass, especially given his penchant for fleeing a tough fight: “[W]e here in this chamber must reform California’s tax system. … I ask the Legislature to join me in finding the equivalent of a water deal on pensions, so that we can meet current promises and yet reduce the burden going forward.”

A water deal on pensions? The Schwarzenegger-backed water deal is a pork-laden travesty that threatens the state’s ongoing prosperity and dabbles in junk science, so let’s just say I’m not too hopeful for a solution on the crucial issue of unfunded promised public employee retirement benefits.

The governor also went for the cheap applause line by pointing to the state’s “fundamental obligation to anyone who has shed blood or risked blood for this country.” Fair enough, but what does that ultimately mean?

Finally, the governor pitched one of the biggest gimmicks I’ve heard in a while (well, at least in the few days since the Legislature came back in session): a constitutional amendment “so that never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education.” He noted that “30 years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education, and 3 percent went to prisons. … Today almost 11 percent goes to prisons, and only 7 1/2 percent goes to higher education.”

I can’t stand the prison-vs.-education comparisons. The two budgets have nothing to do with one another. I agree that California remains overly concerned with law and order and incarcerates far too many people. Mandatory-sentencing laws such as “three strikes” end up imprisoning many people for penny ante offenses. And the state’s Draconian drug laws ensure that about 20 percent of the state’s prison population is there for drug-related offenses. Politicians from both parties have used fear of crime to expand government power and have ladled on the powerful prison guards’ union generous pay and benefit increases, even in tough economic times.

But the state’s education budget also is filled with waste. The state spends 40 percent of its general fund on K-12 education, and yet many of California’s school systems are almost criminally mismanaged and assure lifelong failure for the poorest students – thanks in large measure to union work rules and protections for incompetent, even abusive, teachers. The governor’s proposed constitutional amendment will never come to pass, and, even if it did, it wouldn’t do a thing other than create a legal mechanism to further expand school spending.

The Race to the Top bills the governor touted as something he would sign is OK, I suppose, in that the bills impose some real management changes and other consequences on ill-performing schools. But that, too, is a gimmick. The only thing that will reduce the pressure on the budget from education and improve outcomes for kids is competition – the same time-tested mechanism that improves all goods and services. But don’t expect the governor to waste any of his remaining political capital, such as he has, pushing hard for tuition vouchers or charter schools.

Basically, the governor and legislators think they are doing a great job as it is. They blame the state’s problems on outside forces. They offer gimmicky ideas and silly stories to the masses.

The governor is a failure. He will be remembered as a movie star who came to Sacramento (remember “The Governator”?), changed nothing and went home. The Gray Davis recall was a waste of time. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and start the long, tiring process of reform all over again.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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