Yesterday's front-page story in the SF Chronicle on the California budget crisis was shocking, dishonest and disgraceful. The piece described Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a "steely-eyed, sword-wielding strongman" - who will "hold his ground" against Democrats in the state legislature. Never mind the Terminator has driven the state to bankruptcy - after six years of tax cuts for the rich, fiscal gymnastics and borrowing schemes. Never mind that Schwarzenegger lied about a voter mandate in the May 19th election - and says he won't support a "single tax increase whatsoever." Never mind that by vetoing last week's budget stop-gap measure, Arnold forfeited $2 billion that the state can no longer use - and our government now has to pay with I.O.U.'s. Never mind the Governor told the New York Times that despite the state's disastrous plight, he will sit down in his Jacuzzi and "lay back with a stogie." The Bay Area's paper of record would rather portray him as a "tough guy."
Carla Marinucci is the Chronicle's worst reporter, a point Beyond Chron has written about time and time again. With all the talented printed journalists who are unemployed or underemployed, Marinucci stays on as their top political writer - with yesterday's ode to Schwarzenegger being her most recent incarnation (although Matthew Yi co-authored to the piece.) And it's hard to see how much lower the Chronicle, which is on the brink of going out of business, can go in its coverage of a serious political issue.
Consider Marinucci's first paragraph: "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has played an astonishing range of roles in California's budget dramas - bipartisan peacemaker and people's advocate among them. Now, the governor is reprising a classic familiar to millions: the steely-eyed, sword-wielding strongman." Bipartisan peacemaker? The only thing Arnold ever succeeded in getting Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento to agree on is that they both dislike him - prompting many commentators to label him a "party of one." As for a "people's advocate," Schwarzenegger twice called a special election to have the voters decide - and in both instances, he was soundly rejected.
And while old movie posters from Conan the Barbarian, Terminator and Total Recall could make him out to be a "steely-eyed, sword-wielding strongman," it's hard to see the Governor's current posture as nothing but the pathetic bluster of a deranged bully.
Here are the facts: declining revenues due to a severe recession have bankrupted California - leaving us with a $26.3 billion deficit. The state can lay off every employee tomorrow, and it still wouldn't balance the budget. On May 19th, the voters rejected a complicated set of ballot measures that Arnold championed - after opponents on the left and the right campaigned against them. There has been very little analysis about what "the people" were saying, except a poll that found only 36% of voters (and 24% of Californians) want a cuts-only budget.
Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger has made common cause with right-wing extremists at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association - and Republican in the state legislature. He says the voters on May 19th wanted the state to pass an "all-cuts" budget, and that he won't support "any tax increase whatsoever." Arnold has proposed a budget that will shred our social safety net, and up-end the California Constitution by raiding school funding. He wants to open up the ocean for drilling to get revenue, but opposes a tax on oil companies that would make that profitable - even though Sarah Palin's Alaska has one at 25% of profits.
As June 30th approached, Democrats in the state legislature proposed using $2 billion in reserves to start plugging the hole - money that must be used before the end of the 2008-2009 fiscal year, or else it's gone. They couldn't pass a comprehensive solution because of the two-thirds rule, but this - along with a few budget savings and closing tax loopholes - would have prevented the state from issuing I.O.U.'s. How did Arnold respond? Repeatedly veto the package, and insist we must resolve the "whole problem" all at once. As the midnight deadline loomed, Schwarzenegger offered no solution besides the veto pen.
Apparently, the Governor is emboldened by his rising poll numbers - from a pitiful 30% to a dismal 43% - which may be attributed to a more aggressive posture with the state legislature. But no one stops to ask if those 13% are right-wingers who want to shrink the size of government and drown it in a bathtub. I suspect the legislature's Republican minority is getting along better with Arnold these days, now that he's backed off on all tax increases. For a while, he was persona non grata in the Grover Norquist Fan Club known as the GOP caucus.
But you wouldn't know any of this by reading yesterday's Chronicle - although the piece briefly mentioned the state's bond rating has collapsed, and banks are refusing to cash the state IOU's. The article quoted Schwarzenegger's communications director, who said the Governor has "the luxury" of being near the end of his term - and not having to face the voters again. Marinucci could have mentioned (but didn't) that Arnold's legacy - from slashing the vehicle license fee to solving each budget crisis by borrowing more money - will be driving the state to bankruptcy. If Gray Davis was still Governor, we might not have a deficit.
In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Schwarzenegger said he was not letting California's fiscal crisis get to him personally. "I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight," he told reporter Mark Leibovich. "I'm going to lay back with a stogie." There are so many analogies that come to mind with the Governor's quote. You could say it's just like "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," or another "let them eat cake" moment. A more recent comparison would be George W. Bush, who said he was getting plenty of sleep at night during the Iraq War.
As an R.E.M. fan, however, Arnold's callous attitude reminds me of the following:
It's the End of the World As We Know It,
It's the End of the World As We Know it,
It's the End of the World As We Know It
And I Feel Fine ...
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.