Charm galore, but what’s he selling?

In his first State of the State speech Tuesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger made a strong impression as a likeable man who brings charisma and charm to the Governor’s Office—qualities that have been noticeably lacking for the past three administrations—as well as potential to bring the state’s disparate, and often hostile, factions together. He appeared every inch the “salesman” he claimed to be for a renewed and hopeful California.

But appearances and reality are different things. Yes, much of what Schwarzenegger proposed is good and long overdue: consolidating funding for categorical school programs and giving local schools more control over spending; cleaning up the state’s proliferating commissions and departments; reforming workers’ compensation.

But the subtext of his message was far less rosy: Even if voters approve his $15 billion bond in March to cover the budget deficit this fiscal year, the state will still face an estimated $15 billion budget shortfall in the 2004-05 fiscal year, and the only way to deal with that deficit, he insisted, is to slash public services. All other options, including raising taxes on the very wealthy, are off the table, he said.

How he proposes to make the cuts will become apparent on Friday, when he delivers his budget proposal to the Legislature. Excising $15 billion from an already tight budget while honoring the constitutional mandate for funding public education means the cuts will have to be made primarily in the budgets for prisons, higher education and services to the poor. Our guess is that he will let the burden fall mainly on the poor. Can he convince John Burton and the other Democrats in the Legislature to go along? Unlikely. The man may be charming, but he is not a magician.