Governor Pighead

Schwarzenegger’s failure to get ahead of the curve on his political battles over reform can be explained only by pure arrogance

Let’s stipulate that Attorney General Bill Lockyer does indeed write up ballot-measure descriptions designed to make Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform proposals sound awful.

For instance, Lockyer’s official ballot description of a proposal to enact budget spending controls makes it sound as if school budgets will be slashed, which is bunk. And his official ballot description of the attempted pension reform says orphan and widow death benefits for firefighters and cops could be wiped out, which never would have happened. In fact, the pension-reform measure—recently abandoned by Arnold amid charges that it would wipe out the widow and orphan fund—did not mention orphan and widow benefits.

Over the years, we’ve seen unfair ballot descriptions from all sorts of attorneys general, even though they are supposed to write ballot summaries and ballot titles that are utterly fair. Tainted ballot descriptions are a big deal because many voters base their entire decision on the ballot title and summary, printed on official materials and written by the attorney general.

But Lockyer is a partisan, union guy. He insists his ballot wording was fair, but he wants to be governor in 2006, and in order to achieve it he will need big labor’s millions of dollars in donations. Lockyer and the even more ambitious governor-hopeful, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, both are trying to impress the big labor unions with their loyalty.

It’s hardly a surprise that Lockyer used his power, as other attorneys general have in the past, to undercut ballot measures he and the unions didn’t like. The ballot measure they hated most was the plan to rein in a ballooning state pension mess in Sacramento.

Daniel Pellisier, chief of staff to Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, who wrote the now-abandoned pension-reform legislation that Arnold endorsed, noted, “The truth is there was no death-benefits loophole.”

Richman purposely chose not to address death benefits in his proposed change to the state Constitution, leaving those benefits alone. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine any entity, anywhere in California, that would have driven a stake through its own heart by fighting to cut death benefits for the widows and children of cops or firefighters.

Pellisier told me that Lockyer, in writing ballot language that insisted death benefits were at risk, “is trying to court favor from the labor constituency in his run for governor, so … he has egregiously breached his obligation to provide fair analysis of ballot measures. … Pollsters will tell you that voters who go to the ballot box knowing nothing about an initiative will base their entire decision on what the [ballot] title and summary says. It is very powerful. Lockyer couldn’t resist the urge to advance his own political career.”

Agreed. But hey, politics is ugly. This is no surprise. What surprises me much more is the pigheadedness of the governor, mired in a public-relations debacle that on April 7 forced him to abandon pension reform. (“It does not wipe out orphan and widow benefits.” “Does so.” “Does not.”)

Pension reform in 2005 could have saved California taxpayers billions of dollars over time. But with Lockyer insisting death benefits were at risk, the pension plan got hammered in media coverage featuring protests by firefighters and cops convinced their families could lose out if they died.

Even if the reforms had been approved by voters this fall, the switch to a 401(k)-like system would not have begun saving money right away, because it didn’t affect any existing state workers and only affected new state workers hired after mid-2007. But now that reform is dead for at least a year, taxpayers will be on the hook to help pay the old, bloated pensions to any state worker hired between now and 2008 or possibly even 2009.

Think of it. Thousands of workers, yet to be hired, will get out-of-control pensions subsidized by taxpayers. As I have reported, a typical secretary who today takes a job with the state, working 20 years until retirement age, will get a $1 million payout if he or she lives to full life expectancy.

The state Department of Finance, which confirms this figure, notes that workers who earn more than a typical secretary will get far more than $1 million. Yet, few California taxpayers can dream of $1 million pensions as they subsidize state workers. It’s gross.

Yet, pension reform was killed, in order to make sure that 10 to 15 public-safety officers who die in California in the line of duty annually don’t somehow—preposterously—lose their death benefits.

Yep, 10 to 15 cops and firefighters were “at risk” of losing death benefits in California annually. Pellisier notes that this tiny group became the focus of hysterical claims that death benefits might be halted somehow.

The governor could have quashed this nonsense immediately. He need only have backed legislation that made clear that these 10 to 15 families per year would never lose out, and ensured that thousands of disabled public-safety workers also remained covered.

But noooo. Richman drafted three different plans, one of which would have granted $1 million to the 10 to 15 families who lose somebody each year—roughly twice what such families get today.

But the governor stubbornly denied that there was a loophole. After all, it’s so important to be right. One day, Schwarzenegger met in Santa Monica with worried safety workers. Afterward, some of these mostly Republican police and firefighters went on the evening news to say the governor continued to deny there was any problem.

The mishandling of this struggle is indicative of several current missteps by Schwarzenegger, leading an online writer at to muse that maybe what Arnold wants is “a seemingly insurmountable challenge he can then surmount” and thus grandly win the day.

It all began in the fall of 2004 when a coalition of rich labor unions hired a polling firm to conduct a $100,000 study to figure out how to halt pension reform. The $100,000 survey revealed that pension reform could be hurt if anti-reformers found a way to put firefighters and cops on the news. Voters’ attention had to be averted from the state’s more typical 325,000 employees, like the slow bunch that works the Department of Motor Vehicles counter or those Caltrans crews who seem to be on constant lunch breaks.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California Teachers Association (CTA), California State Employees Association (CSEA) and others created a brilliant strategy. The labor bosses set up a straw man, arguing that because the governor’s reform was silent on death benefits, orphans and widows could be cut off.

As Pellisier noted, “The memo that resulted from this survey turned into their campaign plan. The CSEA, CTA and SEIU led it, and there were 40 people at the strategy meeting. They were not there to come up with a way to fix the pension mess. Their entire campaign was just dedicated to killing it off.”

Lockyer turned that straw man into a powerful political tool by approving it in the official ballot language. By the time TV news stations began airing video of firefighters begging Arnold not to wipe out their death and disability funds, pension reform was utterly dead.

Schwarzenegger’s failure to get ahead of the curve can be explained only by pure gubernatorial arrogance and/or stupidity. Schwarzenegger has seen so much foolishness in Sacramento during his 18 months in office, and he was riding so high in the polls as compared with ruling Democrats, that he and his advisers grew absurdly cocky.

It probably seemed easy to turn the public against unions and a state Legislature that maneuvered under Gray Davis to triple the state’s hated car tax (the highest in the nation) and that together consistently fought reform of workers’ comp, making California famous for granting disabilities to folks who were out improving their golf games. Unions like the prison guards’ union were deeply unpopular with the public, after winning big perks and management powers from a Legislature too afraid to say “no.”

Clearly, our often frightened and intellectually challenged Sacramento Legislature earns its roughly 30-percent approval rating for good reason.

But who’s the stupid one now?

One of the most independent observers of California politics is Pat Caddell, former pollster for Jimmy Carter and now a Democratic analyst for Fox News. Caddell is often ahead of the conventional wisdom. Caddell told me weeks before Schwarzenegger abandoned his pension-reform plan that Schwarzenegger was headed for major defeats this year.

Said Caddell, “Arnold’s strength does not derive from these teams of political advisers and strategists he has surrounded himself with, who have him acting in full campaign mode and grubbing for dollars. He’s on a disastrous and divisive path if he continues to force ideas without bothering to engage Californians and find out first what the people actually want and what people actually fear.”

Schwarzenegger was elected by a mixed bag of Californians, winning most of the state, winning women and even winning Democratic strongholds with the exception of the Bay Area.

As the writer noted, now Arnold seems to be purposely creating insurmountable challenges. Well, the Keystone Kops also set out to create seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which they then tried to surmount. But the Keystone Kops did it because it was funny.