- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

STANFORD, Calif. — You don’t fully appreciate the expression “it never rains, but it pours” until you have seen California in December. And I am not just talking about the weather.

This weekend, California’s Democrat-dominated legislature took it upon itself to pore all over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s parade, delivering the new governor his first political set-back since his inauguration on Nov. 17. Mr. Schwarzenegger will need to find a way to deal with recalcitrant legislators in Sacramento, or the terminator-turned politician will end up being about as effective ? and as popular — as his hapless, recalled predecessor in the governorship.

At issue specifically was how to deal with California’s swelling debt, worked up over years of fiscal mismanagement under former Gov. Gray Davis. The state — whose bond rating today is as dismal as that of Washington’s and New York’s in the bad old days — has $12.6 billion in illegally borrowed short-term debt coming due next year. Mr. Schwarzenegger has reasonably suggested what any businessman in the red would do — refinance past debt while limiting future spending. For this, the California legislature had to approve a bond referendum to be placed on the ballot in the March 2 election.

But in defiance of tough campaigning all over the state by the movie-star governor, the legislature overwhelmingly defeated his proposal, balking at limiting public spending. To quote Democratic State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a possible gubernatorial candidate for 2006, “Instead of asking what we can do for our children, Gov. Schwarzenegger is asking what our children can do for us.” Spending cuts, he announced, were “morally repugnant.” In actual fact, the governor’s proposed spending cap for next year is 25 percent to 30 percent above that of the flush year of 1999 ? but who needs facts when demagoguery will do?

This is where the rubber hits the road in California. The dot.com boom of the ‘90s allowed government spending to soar by 40 percent between 1998 to 2001, but lawmakers refused to scale back spending when the bubble burst. On fiscal issues, even some who voted for Republican Tom McClintock as the true conservative in the race now give Mr. Schwarzenegger high grades for trying to sort out the mess. Indeed, Mr. McClintock himself wrote in support of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s plan in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 1: “The choice that is made in the coming weeks will determine whether California gets the fresh start it deserves, or whether the ghost of Mr. Davis stalks a generation to come.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s first weeks in office, however, give hope that his rapport with the California voters will help him prevail — over the heads of the legislature. On his first day in office, Mr. Schwarzenegger rescinded Mr. Davis’ unconscionable and illegal tripling of the California cartax with nary a peep from Democrats. And at his urging, the California legislature last week repealed the scandalous measure to give illegal aliens driver’s licenses. (This was both wrong on principle and conducive to massive voter fraud.) In other words, what California has seen in the first few weeks of the Schwarzenegger administration is the startling application of common sense to politics.

There will be more tests to come, which will surely bring the new governor national attention. On social issues, Mr. Schwarzenegger may well show a different side, reflecting the bigger-than-big tent politics of his cabinet. One to watch for will be the choice whether to renominate Ward Connerly to the board of overseers at the University of California at Berkley. Mr. Connerly’s tireless campaign against racial quotas at the university has made him a very divisive figure in California’s liberal landscape, though of course also one greatly admired by conservatives and many others.

As for the immediate budget business at hand, the new governor has already declared his determination to go back to the California voters. According to the California constitution, a referendum can either be be placed on the ballot by the legislature or by the collection of signatures. “The initiative process is alive and well today,” says John Cogan, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an economic adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. Given that the California legislature is even less popular than Mr. Davis was before his recall, such a strategy ought to have potential. It could place the much-needed spending initiative on the ballot in November.

Of course, Californians could always recall their legislature as well. Believe it or not, that’s already beimg debated in the opinion pages. California in the winter may be wet, but there’s never a dull moment.

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