Shaking Up California

It looks as if Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born governor of the world's fifth-largest economy, is ditching his American civics book.

In his swearing-in ceremony in November 2003, the California governor harked back to the US citizenship test he'd taken 20 years previous.

He referred to the "miracle at Philadelphia" - the summer of 1787 when delegates from the original 13 states overcame huge differences to produce the US Constitution.

Recognizing California in fiscal and political crisis, and public hunger for elected officials to "work together," Schwarzenegger pledged to repeat the Philadelphia story in Sacramento.

In his first year, the Republican governor actually did find common ground with the heavily Democratic legislature. But now, frustrated that he can't get more of his reforms passed, he's pushing the lawmakers aside.

In a rare move for a governor, Schwarzenegger last week called a special election in November for voters to consider several ballot initiatives, including three of his own reforms: lengthening the time before public school teachers can receive tenure; placing limits on state spending and giving himself new power to cut outlays if revenues don't materialize; and taking the power to draw state and congressional voting districts away from self-interested state lawmakers and giving it to a body of more neutral judges to decide.

Schwarzenegger's instincts that he's got to shake things up are right. Certainly, his initiatives have the potential to change the balance of power in the state. But substantively, they don't all go the distance.

Education is a top concern of California voters. Giving school administrators more time to weed out ineffective teachers from good ones is a step in the right direction, but a small one.

The far bigger issue is the funding and control problem caused by Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure which cut and capped property taxes. That shifted the center of education funding from local communities to Sacramento, and the state's schools have suffered for it.

It's hard to imagine voters undoing tax relief, but a way must be found to address this underlying cause.

As for its fiscal crisis, California has come a long way since the days of its massive budget deficit, which Schwarzenegger inherited.

But the fix-it measures were temporary, and big obstacles remain, including an expensive public pension program. How will his budget initiative resolve this, and other structural, fiscal problems?

The governor's strongest proposal by far is to allow a panel of retired judges to decide voting districts. That will bring fresh competition to campaigns - and ideas - that could perhaps get at some of these larger, underlying problems.

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