Arnold faces ‘elephant in the room’ |

Arnold faces ‘elephant in the room’

It took him more than a year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may finally start acting less like the guy he replaced and more like the guy who promised to give Sacramento a kick in its oversized booty.

Roll the cameras back to November 2003. “Today California has given me the greatest gift of all,” Arnold said minutes after Gray Davis cried “uncle” on election night. An estimated 72 percent of those who voted that night said they disapproved of Davis’ job performance, a performance that led to his recall. At the time, most voters had even less confidence in the state legislators who really run the show down there, and I doubt that opinion has changed very much in the past 13 months.

In spite of his sculptured biceps, deltoids, pectorals and eyebrows, Governor Arnold soon learned that moving an elephant-like Legislature was going to be harder than killing a swamp creature with a pocket knife in front of 200 popcorn eaters.

He’d get so frustrated, the governor could often be found in the backyard tent (Arnold had them put up a smoking tent outside his office) sucking on a giant cigar, muttering “girly men” under his smoke rings.

Last week, however, he looked us right in the eyes and asked for our help. If we really want him to make the kind of dramatic changes he thinks we want, he’ll need us to flush the special-interest lawmakers and their lobbyist pals out into the open so he can pick them off one by one.

“Last year we stopped the bleeding. This year we must heal the patient,” said Arnold in his State of the State last week. “To continue California’s recovery, this year we must do two things. To solve the budget’s continuing structural deficit, we must reform the way government spends its money. And to restore the trust of the people, we must reform the way government operates.”

Then he pointed to the elephant in the back of the room. “In every meeting I attend in Sacramento, there’s an elephant in the room,” he said. “In public, we often act like it’s not there. But, in private, you come up to me – Republican and Democrat alike – and you tell me the same thing, ‘Arnold, if only we could change the budget system. But the politics are just too dangerous.'”

Actually, that’s not exactly what I would have told him had I had the chance to walk up to the governor. I probably would have said something like, “Hey, Arnold, can I have one of those cigars?” And then I would have asked him for an appointment to one of those state commissions where they pay you $100,000 to attend one meeting a year.

In Sacramento, it’s every man for himself.

“The elephant in the room is a budget system that has removed our ability to make the best decisions for California,” he continued. “It has taken away the freedom and the responsibility of legislating. We can change that.”

Then he asked us to ignore the politics and the lobbyists that will most assuredly try to squish any reforms in the system. “Last year we had $78 billion in revenues coming in,” he said. “The great news is that this year we have $83 billion coming in.”

The bad news, he said, was that spending outpaced revenues 2 to 1. “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem,” said Arnold.

Most of us can relate. Especially just after Christmas. I tried to tell my children the same thing. “Kids,” I said. “You spent twice as much as you made this year.”

“Dad,” they replied. “We didn’t make any money this year.”

“Exactly,” I said. “If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to Arnold.”

That’s why Arnold doesn’t want to raise taxes. It will simply encourage the elephants to eat more.

Educators are already getting their own lobbyists ready to challenge the governor’s budget that calls for reductions. But Arnold points out that the state already spends nearly half of its budget on education and, “What do we get for that money?” he asks. “We get many wonderful and dedicated teachers. We get many children who are doing terrific. But $50 billion (education spending) and we still have 30 percent of high school students not graduating. That is a human disaster. Fifty billion dollars and the majority of our students cannot even perform at their grade level. That’s an educational disaster. Fifty billion dollars and we still have hundreds of schools that are failing. That is an institutional disaster.”

Then he sent a message to educators. “I want to reward you for the sacrifices you make. I want to reward you for the learning you instill. We must financially reward teachers who excel and expel those who are not.”

Uh, oh. He means merit pay. The governor says he will work to ensure that a teacher’s pay is tied to performance and not tenure. Much like the rest of the working world.

“My colleagues,” he concluded. “This is going to be a big political fight. This is a battle of the special interests versus the children’s interests. Which will you choose?”

If my memory is correct, it seems most Californians have already chosen. They put Arnold in the governor’s mansion because they want change. Dramatic change. And Arnold is asking those same Californians to help him hold lawmakers accountable. If they don’t respond to him, perhaps they’ll respond to the overwhelming majority of us who sent Arnold to Sacramento.


Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears each Tuesday.

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