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June 27, 2022

Memo to Schwarzenegger: reformer, reform thyself


Reform

may have just about overtaken

fantastic

as the favorite word of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his aides
as they head into his second full year in office.
“Reform” may have just about overtaken “fantastic” as the favorite word of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his aides as they head into his second full year in office.

He aims to reform the budget process, instituting strict spending limits to prevent deficits like the estimated $8 billion shortfall California government may face this year. And he aims to reform the once-a-decade reapportionment process so that state legislators no longer draw the maps that control their own reelection. Both laudable goals.

“The governor is looking at all his options to make government more responsive to the people,” spokeswoman Margita Thompson said.

Of course, one person’s reform can be another’s disaster. One current fear: a budget-balancing plan might decimate programs from Medi-Cal to health insurance for children of the working poor to state park acquisitions. And Democrats naturally worry that any change in the once-a-decade reapportionment process might cost them their longstanding dominance of the Legislature.

Because proposing reforms can raise fears, Schwarzenegger must be credible as a sincere, nonpartisan agent for change as he pushes reform or it will go nowhere, either in Sacramento or as a series of ballot initiatives in a special election he might call later this year.

So far, the governor has shown a few signs of understanding this. Last month he became the first governor ever to release calendars showing most – but not quite all – of the people he met with over the preceding year. And he made a major move toward dealing honestly with both legislators and the public when he decided to reveal the true size of his own staff, which amounts to 185 persons and not the 60 or so mentioned in the last budget.

Other governors, and Schwarzenegger in his first year, listed many of their staffers as employees of other state departments, then “borrowed” their services. This was a way to downplay how much their operations were costing taxpayers.

Both these recent disclosures were significant steps toward the openness in government pledged by Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall election that brought him to office. But he’s still got a long way to go in demonstrating that he means what he says about reform. For neither of these steps involves the fund-raising operations he’s used to further his political causes.

The man Schwarzenegger ousted, ex-Gov. Gray Davis, was legendary for many years for his ability to shake the political money tree time after time. But Schwarzenegger makes him look like a rank amateur.

He took in more than $24 million in his first 14 months in office, a time when most governors needn’t worry much about campaign donations. This more than doubled what Davis raised in a similar time span of 1999-2000. And most of it came from people and companies with significant business before state government, precisely the practice Schwarzenegger criticized most in Davis.

It was a bit of a contradiction, too, considering Schwarzenegger bragged while seeking office that he’s so rich he would never have to accept a nickel from anyone. Much of the money came in, also, while the state budget was being shaped, a time Schwarzenegger repeatedly argued should be free from all fund-raising in order to avoid even the appearance of influence peddling.

And sure enough, all those millions have brought conflict of interest charges, suspicions that Schwarzenegger’s operation is as corrupt as the Davis administration might ever have been.

Wearing his reform hat, the governor often likes to say he wants nearly complete transparency in government. Opening his calendar and owning up to the size of his staff are steps in that direction.

Similarly, Schwarzenegger says he wants restrictions on state spending to bring cash outflows into line with incoming revenues. But he opted to borrow his way out of the state deficit last year rather than balancing the budget.

But for a man who bills himself as a dedicated reformer Schwarzenegger has a ways to go in reforming his own political and governmental practices.

He will have little credibility as a reformer – especially among the legislators who can ease passage of any proposed reform – so long as the obvious inconsistencies remain.

In short, the crux of what Schwarzenegger should do to become truly believable can be summed up by bowdlerizing the old admonition to physicians: Reformer, reform thyself first. And if Schwarzenegger does clean up the questionable parts of his act, he has a chance to be remembered as a major reformer in the same league with towering figures of California’s past like Earl Warren and Hiram Johnson.

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