California budget smoke screen

Governor finds fighting fires easier than facing budget

While Schwarzenegger toured fire zones with his friend George, the state budget was in meltdown.

While Schwarzenegger toured fire zones with his friend George, the state budget was in meltdown.

Photo Courtesy of The Governor’s office

Cosmo Garvin contributed to this report. A version of this story previously appeared in Metro Silicon Valley.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger captured nationwide media attention earlier this month when he hinted that he might consider a position as environment czar in the Barack Obama administration. The idea of the nation’s greenest Republican going to work for the Democratic presidential hopeful was stunning enough—and plausible enough—to lead national newscasts for a couple of days.

Curiously, the governor reappeared a few minutes later on those same news programs, this time flanked by yellow-uniformed National Guard troops standing in front of redwoods exploding in flame. A week later, there he was again, touring Redding with fellow Republican, President George W. Bush, explaining that the Bush administration’s help in fighting wildfires up and down the state had been “fantastic.”

In each case, Schwarzenegger calmly explained, in that weirdly articulate, preternaturally confident, Austria-via-Hollywood accent, exactly how he would get a handle on things.

And meanwhile, just outside the governor’s Sacramento office, a man-made disaster erupted, as the annual financial crisis that paralyzes the state every budget season reeled out of control.

The same, entirely predictable “emergency” returns year after year, as the costs of running the world’s fourth-largest economy spiral upward (with everything else) while revenues remain frozen (by politics). But this year, the situation is more dire than ever.

As usual, state lawmakers have blown the constitutional deadline mandating that a budget be passed three weeks ago. The Democrats who overwhelmingly control the state house have put forward a series of proposals, all of which have been stymied by a stubborn Republican minority chanting the “no new taxes” mantra.

Schwarzenegger loudly expressed his frustration with the Democratically controlled Legislature, telling The Sacramento Bee, “It’s almost like there is no emergency there.” Later he quipped, “I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t make it drink,” implying that despite his efforts the Legislature just couldn’t get its act together.

“Frankly, I find that a little annoying,” said Darrell Steinberg, state senator from Sacramento and the next president pro tem of the Senate.

“The governor, his celebrity and the power of his office are an indispensable part of the solution,” Steinberg told SN&R. He said he’s looking forward to working with the governor, but that Schwarzenegger hasn’t been willing to tackle the fundamental problems that lead the state to the same budget emergency every year. Consider the governor’s first act in office in 2003: to cut the $6 billion in revenue that the state collected from vehicle license fees. That’s about the same as the state’s “structural deficit.”

“We need his leadership. We’re all in this together,” Steinberg added.

As always, it’s a battle between cuts and taxes. The truculent few on the right side of the aisle, empowered by a Proposition 13-era law that requires a two-thirds supermajority in order to pass any tax, has declined to budge—even refusing to put forward any plan of its own.

And the governor?

He’s been traveling to every forest fire and brush fire in the state.

“He’s been out there fighting fires because he doesn’t want to be blamed for this mess,” said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass. Bass is one of the “Big 5” leaders of the Senate and Assembly, who along with the governor, meet every year to try to break the budget deadlock. But what’s different this year, according to some legislators and staff members, is that the governor has been largely missing in budget process up until now. “What he should be doing is trying to line up some Republican votes. That’s the stumbling block.”

Assemblyman John Laird agrees. The Democrat, who represents parts of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, says the governor has “disengaged himself” from the money wrangling.

“He’s just not into it,” Laird says of Schwarzenegger. “At this point he’d probably take anything we could get him, even if it included new revenues. But he isn’t getting involved; he isn’t here.”

It’s difficult to blame Schwarzenegger for indulging in some denial and hiding inside the shroud of smoke. He’s been frustrated by this partisan stalemate for a long time—it’s practically the very thing that drove him to seek office. And now this smoldering issue has erupted like the state’s blazes.

“The problem is bigger this year,” Laird concedes. “I’m talking about the sheer scale of it. There are two reasons: First of all, people have continued to jam more and more [expenses] into the budget, while the Republicans continue to deny that we need revenues.”

The numbers are too big for a normal Californian to fully comprehend, but a glance at the biggest figures is daunting. We’ve got $6 billion worth of “structural deficit” that is practically built into the state’s financing system, $3 billion in debt bonds to pay for previous years’ imbalances and at least another $6 billion in unfunded programs (including $500 million just for the after-school program Schwarzenegger got passed by voter initiative in 2002 before he was elected).

The Legislature managed to fix an $8 billion deficit earlier in the year, but now the state is still $15 billion south of zero.

Although he’s been playing this game for a while now, Laird still seems almost incredulous when he adds it up: “That’s a $24 billion shortfall in a $100 billion budget.”

Laird is about as fiscally hard-nosed as a Democrat can be, but he is unapologetically partisan in his prescription for repairing this huge hole in the state’s checkbook. California lawmakers, he believes, must be realistic about how much money their many programs demand and find the money to pay for them.

He uses this summer’s wildfires as an example of the state’s penchant for ignoring hard fiscal truths. Last year, the Legislature allocated $70 million to fight fires. Already this summer, we’ve spent $380 million. Although it’s been a hot summer, the same thing happens every year—drawing down the general fund. And the same thing happens all over the budget, not just in emergency services.

This week, Laird and his colleagues managed to get the state’s wildfire budget doubled. But while Republicans in Sacramento were willing to cough up $100 million or so to keep the state from being incinerated, Laird is not hopeful that they are going to be willing to increase taxes to keep state programs funded.

Laird explains the real politick of the situation by telling a joke he learned from Maviglio: Republicans in Sacramento are relevant only twice a year—during the budget vote and at the Legislature’s annual softball game.

This is when the Republicans make their deals, holding the government hostage until they get what they want. And this year the Democrats are playing hardball.

“Our goal has been to never give up long-term policy just to win the budget vote,” Laird admits. And he knows the game has got to come to an end soon.

“The public is getting to the point where they just want it fixed,” he says. “The public is saying: ‘You’re making us crazy. Just do your jobs.’ I get it.

“The question is, do we have the votes? The answer is no, we don’t.”

But beyond solving this year’s budget crisis, Steinberg says real reform is needed. He says he’s looking forward to working with the governor on fundamental changes.

“Solving the budget problem in a real, long-term way is the key to opening up all of the policy goals that the Legislature and governor want to pursue. You can make a strong argument that the reason health care failed this year was because of this debt,” Steinberg said.

“The governor has an opportunity to lead a debate around the only question that really matters: What do we want and how do we pay for it?”