Schwarzenegger's final state address: morning in California?

Historic deficits and a gridlocked legislature won't stop California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from trying to salvage his legacy in his last year in office. The governor is expected to lay out an ambitious agenda for 2010 in his State of the State address Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shakes hands with eighth grader Daquan Scott following remarks at the Rosa Parks Middle School, in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday.
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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to swing for the fences in his final State of the State address Wednesday, even reportedly hiring the speechwriter who wrote Ronald Reagan’s famous “It’s morning in America” address.

The governor took office in 2003 promising to end state dysfunction and “crazy deficit spending," and is now entering his final year with a gridlocked government and the biggest state deficit in US history.

But he isn’t going to slink away quietly in his “lame duck” year.

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Governor Schwarzenegger is aiming high, analysts say, with a 2010 agenda that includes structural changes – ideas to alter the state’s long-term tax structure, create a stronger “rainy day” reserve, and push for a ballot measure that would help elect officials more willing to compromise – as well as a laundry list of infrastructure, environmental, and education projects.

“Schwarzenegger is very concerned about his legacy, which has been scaled down considerably from his early promises. But he wants to salvage at least some items that are consonant with what he has talked about,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

Whether he can actually deliver – with recalcitrant lawmakers and record deficits – is another matter. Schwarzenegger’s forthcoming budget faces a $20 billion shortfall, on top of the $60 billion hole that has preoccupied the legislature and governor for the past two years.

The Republican governor might garner some “deliverables” with the help of federal funds, Ms. O’Connor says. “Washington clearly has a giant interest in helping California because it can’t create a national recovery without it,” she says. “It’s the state that’s ‘too big to fail,’ so we will get more cooperation from both parties because of that.”

Morning in California?

Schwarzenegger is reported to have hired speechwriter Landon Parvin, who wrote several speeches for Ronald Reagan, including his second inaugural address, famously dubbed “It’s morning in America” for its focus on renewal. Mr. Parvin also wrote Schwarzenegger’s acceptance speech on winning the recall election in 2003 and thus is well suited to rhetorically bookend his governorship.

“Schwarzenegger will be out to convince voters and legislators alike that maybe it is morning in California, or otherwise let’s just turn off the lights and go home,” says O’Connor.

But other national analysts are skeptical about whether the “Gubernator” can pull it off.

“It’s not morning in California, so in many ways this has to be a legacy speech only … it’s very hard to tout or expect accomplishments given the current state of the state,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Yes, the federal money is a good wild card, but that money will be very small potatoes compared to the mammoth problems the state has.”

Some suggest Schwarzenegger might lay out an agenda for reform, work to implement it during 2010 and continue in the following years out of office, by setting up his own reform committee, funding ballot initiatives, and giving speeches.

“I think a commitment to working in future years would help in 2010,” says Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles. “This would reject the lame duck analogy by lengthening the runway.”

A formidable task

Others point to comparisons with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former pro wrestler, who left the state with fiscal problems in 2003.

“When Schwarzenegger first won the governorship, some feared that he would meet the fate of Jesse Ventura: a flake whose eccentricities made him a one-term governor,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. But Schwarzenegger is in trouble not because he has been exotic, he says, but because he turned out to be so conventional.

“Soaring rhetoric will make no difference,” adds Mr. Pitney. “Very few Californians will watch the speech, and the legislators have become immune to Arnold's charm.” His approval ratings currently hover around 27 percent.

As early as the 2004 election, it was clear that Schwarzenegger could not affect legislative races, he says. The subsequent defeat of his 2005 reform package wrecked his government-by-initiative strategy.

“The state's deficit severely restricts his ability to propose new spending programs,” Pitney says. “Costly regulations on business are also a no-go. Jobs are already moving out of state, and new rules would amount to a big "Relocate to Nevada" sign. He might talk about reforming the tax system, but under any conceivable reform, some people or businesses would end up paying more -- a hard sell in hard times."

Fighting until the end

Still, most analysts seem impressed that Schwarzenegger isn’t exiting with his tail between his legs.

“If Landon Parvin is writing his State of the State, that likely means that Schwarzenegger has history on his mind,” says Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for CGS. “He will not go quietly into the sunset. Even considering all the battles he faces, he will try to go out in truly Hollywood style, with a bang.”

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