California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is accomplishing right now what he failed to do in 2005 when he tried to put the state's major labor unions out of business and downsize the state government. At that time there was no economic catastrophe to point to as an excuse to shred the social safety net. But today, thanks to an economic crisis his good friend George W. Bush gave us, he's launching a frontal assault against virtually all of the state's public sector institutions. California Republicans have always hated social programs they believed mirrored Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and they've tried in good times and in bad to dismantle them. Now they're seizing the current crisis to enact their wildest free-market fantasies.
"No matter the nationality, no matter the religion, no matter the ethnic background," Schwarzenegger told an adoring crowd at the 2004 Republican National Convention, "America brings out the best in people. And as governor of the great state of California, I see the best in Americans every day -- our police, our firefighters, our nurses, doctors, and teachers, our parents."
And now he's proudly sticking it to those same people he praised so fulsomely five years ago when it was politically expedient for him to do so.
History is always full of surprises. In the 1930s, this nation responded to a similar economic collapse with sweeping New Deal reforms that created for the first time at the federal level a social safety net to provide security and relief to the most vulnerable Americans. Today, in California at least, Schwarzenegger and his right-wing Republican allies are "responding" to the current economic collapse by dismantling those same kind of institutions that are designed to provide minimal security for the most vulnerable Californians, even including (since Saturday anyway) the state's pension plan. If Schwarzenegger can shrink the state government by about 15 or 20 percent and eliminate Democratic programs -- no matter the terrible social consequences of rising crime, homelessness, illness and despair -- he'll be a hero among the right-wing corporate elites he serves so well. And that's all he seems to care about: His next elective office?
Hopefully, what we're seeing today in California is the last-gasp of the Bush era -- something akin to those dark days in the summer of 1932 when General Douglas MacArthur's troops tear-gassed and clubbed desperately poor WWI veterans who had marched to Washington to demand their service bonuses. Or perhaps (less hopefully) this sadistic assault on California's public sector is a new blueprint for dealing with economic crises. The captains of industry are using their political tools like Schwarzenegger to inflict pain on an already hurting population through rolling back public institutions that might have softened the blow for millions of people during this wholly avoidable, yet prolonged economic meltdown.
Newspapers are falling by the wayside and there's very little coverage of state government aside from some good reporting in the Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times,and San Francisco Chronicle. Few Californians are paying attention to the kind of reckless brinkmanship Schwarzenegger and his Republican allies are playing in Sacramento. And this lack of attention doesn't mean what's happening is not going to change the social climate of the state. Normally, with divided government a legislature throws bills on to the executive's desk and sends the ball into the governor's court to veto them and take the political heat. But in California the two-thirds rule in the legislature means the Republican minority can kill any bill before it reaches the governor's desk thereby shielding the Terminator from being the focus of the voters' wrath.
Schwarzenegger can sit back and point fingers at the Democrats without suffering the political consequences that his authoritarian demands and cruel budget cuts would elicit if the public could see what he's doing. A strange sadism has surfaced as Schwarzenegger reaches the waning period of his first venture into politics. The sooner the state is rid of this man the better. The correctional officers' union last fall had the right idea when they launched a short-lived effort to recall Schwarzenegger. I wish the rest of the labor unions in the state had had enough sense to join them.
Schwarzenegger's budget cuts are going to be devastating to the city of Sacramento because there are over 80,000 state workers in this region. At a social gathering this past weekend I spoke to a California Highway Patrol officer who is worried about the local layoffs of sheriffs and police and how they are going to increase his work load. Another person I spoke with is a probation officer and he told me his work load is going up from about 105 cases to 180, and most of those are just going to be more paperwork without any real outreach because he has to spend the bulk of his time tracking sex offenders. I met two other people who are "furloughed" from their state jobs and since they're a couple their family has been hit with about a 25 percent cut in pay (and Arnold is threatening even more furlough days for state workers). It's a Republican wet dream in the Golden State and they're not even in the majority!
In Sacramento they had to close a local 110-bed facility, the Warren E. Thornton Youth Center, that helped juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system that had operated without a hitch for forty-one years, just to save a measly $8.9 million a year. Now the boys, age 13 to 16, and the girls 13 to 18, are being farmed out to juvenile halls and foster homes, which also have taken huge budget cuts.
Given the cut-backs on sheriffs and police officers, the economic depression, and the lack of social services for people falling through the cracks, California over the next eighteen months is going to begin to experience levels of poverty, crime, and homelessness the likes of which the state has not seen since the Great Depression. If Schwarzenegger gets his way -- and all indications are that he will -- kids are going to die due to a lack of adequate Child Protective Services staff, probation officers or going to lose track of their violent charges, people are going to be thrown off welfare and food stamps, and there's going to be an overload of new cases in an already strained prison system. It seems like Schwarzenegger is following George W. Bush's model during his last eighteen months in office: Make the biggest mess you can on the way out so your Democratic successors will be occupied for years cleaning it up instead of passing their agenda.
As this goes to print, Schwarzenegger and the Republicans in the legislature not only refuse to compromise one iota from their maximal demands but have added new demands as the hours tick away to IOU time. What Schwarzenegger means when he talks about a "full budget solution" is getting EVERYTHING he wants without compromise. Schwarzenegger and the Republicans have given the legislature a set of all-or-nothing demands. And then they throw out a few crumbs here and there to give the appearance that they're negotiating in "good faith." "Good faith" it is not.
A small minority of conservative ideologues is tying the legislature into knots with parliamentary tricks while the Republican governor demands a rubber stamp for his right-wing anti-government agenda. It's authoritarian and dangerous. They're not budging on a host of retrograde initiatives they've tried to pass in the past (but failed) to ram down our throats. These miserable proposals threaten to turn California into Mississippi. Their special targets are any institution that helps the poor, educates our children, or brings health care to the uninsured. Right now Schwarzenegger's style of governance seems as if he'd like nothing more than to dissolve the legislature and impose his "full budget solution" from a bunker in the high Sierras.