California State of the State address lays out ambitious agenda

In his last California State of the State address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lays out an agenda that includes tax reforms, federal assistance, and a $500 million worker training plan. But how much can he accomplish in a 'lame duck' year?

Robert Durell/Reuters
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the state legislature during his annual State of the State speech in Sacramento, California, Wednesday.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last California State of the State address Wednesday was marked by an upbeat tone and an ambitious, last-ditch agenda lacking in key details, analysts say.

Using a drawn-out anecdote about his family pets – how a pot-bellied pig and a pony come together to steal his dog's food – Governor Schwarzenegger emphasized that teamwork that will be needed in the coming year to reach his goals including tax reforms and green jobs. But it remains unclear how the governor will overcome a gridlocked legislature in his last year when he wasn't able to do so in the previous eight.

“This was not a detailed speech, staying with warm symbols about California as the Golden State and broadly drawing the positive achievements that can still happen this year,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. The positive rhetoric could help “offset the litany of cuts” due to be announced Friday when he submits the budget, she said.

Schwarzenegger’s proposals include:

• Pushing for a constitutional amendment to reorder spending priorities on prisons and education, under which prisons currently gets 11 percent of state spending and higher education 7 percent. He also proposed privatizing prisons to help with this.

• Seeking more Federal assistance. California only gets 78 cents for every dollar sent to Washington, compared with 94 cents in Pennsylvania, the governor pointed out.

• A $500 million in worker training plan to create jobs in a state where unemployment hovers above 12 percent. The plan is part of an economic stimulus package that also includes housing tax credits and lower sales taxes for green technology.

Perhaps the most striking proposal, for Ms. O’Connor as well as Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, was the constitutional amendment requiring more funding for higher education than for prisons.

“It is somewhat surprising for a Republican to want to put this into our constitution through a ballot initiative, but Schwarzenegger has never fit neatly into a party box,” Ms. Levinson says.

Still, it was the $20 billion budget hole that loomed over Schwarzenegger’s agenda. The governor called the budget crisis California’s “Katrina,” and proposed a raft of ballot initiatives to reform the budget process.

“The Governor knows that his last year will be about the budget, then the budget, and also the budget,” Levinson says.

“It’s doubtful that he will be able to accomplish everything that he spoke about, but even if a few reform measures are passed that could significantly help both our state and his legacy,” she adds.

Other analysts were not so sanguine, especially about Schwarzenegger’s call for teamwork.

“To enact the governor's reforms, the legislature would have to rise above special-interest politics,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

“Asking California legislators to renounce special interests and make sacrifices is like asking sharks to become vegetarians. The speech aired opposite 'The Price is Right.' Most of the legislators would title it 'The Price is Wrong,' " he adds.

Under any version of tax reform, some people would pay less but those who would pay more will be much louder than those who'd pay less, Mr. Pitney says.

As for the $500 million worker training plan and $200 million first-time home buyer tax credit, such stimulus programs are laudable but will be just “drops in the fiscal bucket,” says Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“Unfortunately, the Governor's proposals don't try to repair our broken governmental systems, so that we can extricate ourselves from future fiscal crises and not simply plaster over them with Band-Aids,” he says.


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