Whatever Became of the Gubernator?

California's reformer-in-chief looked a lot better in the previews


For an action-hero politician who likes to taunt "girlie-men," Arnold Schwarzenegger sure turned out to be a wuss.

Two years after sweeping into office with promises to "blow up boxes," perform "the Miracle of Sacramento," and "not rest until our fiscal house is in order," California's Milton Friedman–quoting governor is wasting our time with a special election that does little more than tweak his unionized political tormentors and tinker at the margins of mis-governance, while the state's fiscal house maintains its disorder of $6 billion budget deficits.

The governor is tramping across the state visiting '70s House Parties to manufacture enthusiasm for his four "reform" ballot initiatives:

  • Proposition 74 would make public schoolteachers easier to fire, while extending their pre-tenure period from two to five years.
  • 75 would force public-sector unions to obtain written approval from each individual member once a year before spending his or her dues on political campaigns.
  • 76 is one of approximately 12 bazillion recent California ballot initiatives, many of them (like last year's Propositions 57 and 58) already enshrined in the state Constitution, that promise to "control spending to end state deficits," and/or "stabilize education funding to make sure our public schools are getting the money they need." (And yes, 76 promises both.)
  • And Proposition 77, the only one that hints at fundamental state reform, would replace political gerrymandering with a three-judge panel which will, we hope, draw up coherent and competitive political districts.

Californians did not fire the loathsome Gray Davis because of his policies on teacher compensation. They fired him because he grew an already bloated and inefficient government to epic proportions, creating what was widely seen as a "structural" budget deficit of $8 billion a year (while the actual deficit ballooned to more than $30 billion). Schwarzenegger's been blowing up his boxes for two years now, including an important overhaul of the worker's compensation system, and all we've saved is a lousy $2 billion? It would seem that something more radical is required.

That's where the California Performance Review was supposed to kick in. A governor-appointed advisory body to recommend the mass elimination of governor-appointed advisory boards ("320 unnecessary or duplicative boards, commissions, task forces, and other appointed bodies," to be exact).

"The performance review proposed a top-to-bottom reorganization of government, eliminating more than 1,100 political appointees, and recommended more than 1,400 policy reforms to improve and streamline how government operates," Reason Foundation Senior Fellow George Passantino, who worked on the California Performance Review, wrote in August. "The plan was so ambitious that conventional wisdom said a special election would be needed to enact many of the reforms. As months passed, talk of a special election grew but the governor's focus shifted to other reforms."

The Performance Review Board's recommendations amounted to $32 billion in savings over five years; $4 billion alone for selling off such why-do-they-own-those assets as golf courses and beach houses. And the board-cutting, "reinventing government" stuff isn't just pie-in-the-sky libertarianism—to pluck one example at random, California has an elected Superintendent of Education (Jack O'Connell), but the governor also appoints a Secretary of Education (Alan Bersin; used to be Richard Riordan). How does the Superintendent differ from the Secretary? Beats the hell out of me, but I pay both their salaries, and those of their extended staffs.

California's full of such governmental nonsense, where inefficiency is matched only by cronyism and lack of transparency. "There are still more than 220 boards and commissions in the executive branch with little accountability to the public," Passantino wrote. "Some of the most egregious boards, such as the Integrated Waste Management Board, still pay more than $100,000 to their politically appointed members."

Schwarzenegger had a once-in-a-generation mandate to do something about such dysfunction now, but chose instead to dust off "Paycheck Protection" from the Pete Wilson playbook. If the governor really wanted to do something about public sector employees, the best place to start would be by eliminating the one thousand-plus he's hired to do God knows what.

Instead, we get some tangential ballot measures, phony photo ops, bully-pulpit breath wasted on the chimera of businesses leaving California, and targeted state assistance to industr ies with clout.

"I did not seek this office," Schwarzenegger insisted in his inaugural address, "to do things the way they've always been done." It makes you wonder what he was seeking to do.

Associate Editor Matt Welch writes from Los Angeles. His work is archived at mattwelch.com, where he also blogs.