Schwarzenegger Needs to Refocus

Quality of life issues left on sidelines

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s critics are proudly interpreting the across-the-board failure of all eight ballot initiatives in Tuesday’s special election as a resounding defeat of his reform agenda, while Schwarzenegger’s allies are hanging the defeat on other reasons, like being outspent by their opponents or being victims of deceptive ads. Both sides are wrong.

The special election was not a case of “liberal” California reasserting its political will over its Republican governor. In fact, liberal California voted down a return to regulated electricity and state-subsidized drug programs — both core priorities of the “left.”

The special election was a case of Schwarzenegger – and anyone else pushing for a “yes” vote on an initiative — completely failing to connect critical political reform issues to real people’s lives.

While teacher tenure and redistricting are needed reforms, they don’t resonate with people like other issues that were dumped earlier in Schwarzenegger’s “year of reform” and need to be resurrected soon.

We all care about traffic — and the time we waste sitting in it – but the governor’s transportation reform agenda, dubbed “GoCalifornia” was shelved because public-private partnerships – like those currently being used to build roads in several other states and around the world – might threaten some union jobs in California. If there’s an issue that is tailor made for Arnold to butt heads with unions on – traffic congestion is it. Do Californians want to protect a few union jobs or less gridlock? Traffic solutions win in a landslide. But the Schwarzenegger administration let transportation reform quietly drift off the radar screen with an attitude that they could pick it up “after the election.”

As the political upheaval in San Diego shows, taxpayers care about being on the hook for multibillion dollar pension bailouts. But this spring, Schwarzenegger scuttled plans to change the extravagant public employee pension system, which even he described as a “financial train on another track to disaster.” By dropping the issue, he lost the ability to talk about $40 billion in public liabilities – taxpayer liabilities – that special interests and their legislative allies helped create in the state’s two largest pension funds.

Most people thought “blowing up the boxes” of government, as Schwarzenegger once promised to do, was a good idea. We recalled a sitting governor, didn’t we? The vast majority of the opposition to Schwarzenegger’s proposal to blow up the boxes came from inside the Sacramento bureaucracy. Staying committed to that reform package by trying to roll back the more than 300 different state boards and commissions identified by the California Performance Review would have shown voters he’s sticking to his end of the recall bargain.

Though Schwarzenegger has undoubtedly missed a golden opportunity, real government reform remains achievable if the governor can regroup, honestly digest where things went wrong and proceed differently. It’s not his first loss — he didn’t win every single bodybuilding event he ever entered, after all.

Democrats shouldn’t boast too much about the “No, No, No, No” streaming from voters. The election was not a broad mandate against the governor. The Democrat-controlled Legislature’s favorability ratings are, after all, even lower than those of the bruised Schwarzenegger.

In fact, the election conjures up images of the popular credit card commercial featuring comedian David Spade, where customer service agents are pre-programmed to say “no” to anything and everything.

Voters didn’t say “no” to everything because California is perfect. This is still a state with a multibillion-dollar structural budget deficit, and there are plenty of real changes needed. Now, the real question is who is going to offer the solutions and accountability the electorate has demanded?

George Passantino is senior fellow in government reform at Reason Foundation and served as a director of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review.