Did Arnold deliver?

Not when it comes to the state’s finances

As Arnold Schwarzenegger packs his bags, it’s worth asking how well the state did during his seven years as governor.

Let’s first roll the credits: a $42 billion package of infrastructure improvements; the toughest auto-emissions law in the country; establishment of a redistricting commission and voter approval of an open-primary system; changes in workers’ compensation that have been good for business, if not workers; and state pension rollbacks good for taxpayers, if not workers.

Several of the governor’s biggest environmental accomplishments won’t go into effect (or before voters) until well after he leaves office. These include his landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which goes into full effect in 2012; his $11.1 billion water bond proposal, on the ballot in 2012; and a high-speed-rail project that’s unlikely to begin construction before 2012.

But none of these—with the possible exception of workers’-compensation reform—was a major campaign promise. Instead, he promised to reorganize government’s boxes by “blow[ing] them up,” not just “moving them around”; to “sweep the special interests out of the Capitol”; and to “tear up the credit cards” and “live within our means.”

In this, he’s been almost completely unsuccessful. True, he’s had to contend with the worst recession in decades, but even early in his tenure, before the economic downturn, he failed to deal conclusively with the structural budget deficit.

Now he’s left California with a shortfall that, over the next 18 months, will amount to more than $28 billion, a virtual Mount Everest of red ink.

It’s not all his fault, of course. The recession is much to blame. So is California’s dysfunctional government, with its many complications.

Still, Schwarzenegger’s “action hero” personality was never a good fit with the incrementalist legislative process. Try as he might, the governor was unable to use force of personality to get things done.

So, instead of blowing up the boxes and tearing up the credit cards, he used gimmicks and sleight-of-hand to paper over the budget deficit, with the result that it got steadily worse, not better. Historians are likely to say this failure overshadowed his accomplishments.