Can Schwarzenegger recover from voters' ballot-box blow?

Californians reject the governor's plans for budget reforms, leaving him politically damaged and with a $21.3 billion deficit to manage.

By , Staff writer

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    Lupe Granado (c.) of Whittier, Calif., votes in Tuesday's special election at St. Bruno's Catholic Church in Whittier.
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With bigger-than-life muscles and Austrian accent, Arnold Schwarzenegger sold himself to voters as the populist outsider who would fix California government by giving it back to the people. Six years later, it appears the people are dispatching the former actor with one of his most famous Hollywood rejoinders: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

After besting a wide field in the state’s first gubernatorial recall election in 2003, to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Mr. Schwarzenegger has had a tenure filled with bold successes and bold failures – most notably the rejection of four ballot initiatives in late 2004. Now, with voters soundly rejecting Schwarzenegger’s second round of reforms, experts here are beginning to write his political obituary.

“Arnold’s governorship was supposed to be an action movie. Now it’s a disaster movie,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “The best he can hope is that there will be survivors. He can plausibly argue that the [state's budget] crisis was not his fault, but it’s clear that he has not been able to avert it.”

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Propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, and 1E were all defeated in Tuesday’s special election, in which about 40 percent of voters turned out. The first promised a spending cap and a rainy-day reserve fund. A second provided new school funding. A third allowed the state to borrow against future lottery revenue. A fourth and fifth would have allowed the state to move tobacco-tax money and health funds to the state’s general fund.
Voters approved a sixth initiative, 1F – which prohibits state legislators from giving themselves a raise when the budget is not balanced.

Damaging to Schwarzenegger

“In some ways, this election was the governor’s last political hurrah,” says Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. He “put a great deal of time and money into the passage of [these] measures…. [He] put his political capital on the line in this election, and the passage of 1A-1F was in many ways key to [his] political legacy.”

Gone now, says Ms. Levinson, is political capital Schwarzenegger could have used on issues like obtaining healthcare for all Californians. The Republican governor could have ended on a high note after backing a ballot proposition in November, which voters approved, to redraw the state’s political districts and end political gridlock, and after catapulting the state into the world spotlight for signing landmark legislation that mandates cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the governor’s approval ratings are now in the 30s, Levinson notes, and he has “for the most part lost the support of his own party, and there are no longer discussions of Governor Schwarzenegger running for another elected office.”

How to erase a $21.3 billion deficit?

Now, Schwarzenegger and state legislators must go back to the drawing board to erase a state budget deficit of $21.3 billion. Draconian cuts in services and the state workforce lie ahead, because Schwarzenegger has drawn a strong line against new taxes, most observers say.

“It will be brutal,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. “It will be a long, hot summer. The voters will realize he wasn’t Chicken Little and the sky is falling, and they will listen.” The silver lining could be a newly created impetus to erase the state’s requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers must agree on the annual state budget – a requirement that many political watchers see as the main reasons for perennial gridlock.

Schwarzenegger’s relationship with the Obama administration is good, and neither Obama nor the California leadership in Congress wants to stand by while California disintegrates, O'Connor says. Schwarzenegger is in Washington Wednesday, where he is expected to push for waivers from rules attached to federal stimulus funds coming to the state. Some of his proposed budget cuts are so deep that Schwarzenegger is concerned they might violate federal rules for matching funds.

Some analysts suggest that the recession has been Schwarzenegger's biggest hurdle and that, therefore, he will be seen in a less harsh light. He has just under two years left in office.

“The governor will not shoulder the blame, and he will get a legacy one way or the other,” says O’Connor. “There is lots of systemic blame to go around.”

The election Tuesday reinforced the state’s reputation for ungovernability, and some of that blame goes to the populace, many say.

“Did the state miss a chance to restore order to its budget process? Perhaps,” says Dr. Pitney. “That’s the story of California politics: Reforms turn to rot, hope yields to disappointment, and the best intentions result in the sorriest outcomes.”

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