UnderCurrents: ‘Girlie-Men’ Remark Obscures Governor’s Non-Solution

Friday July 23, 2004

Jealous, perhaps, of this summer’s box office success of political documentaries, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently provided us with a bit of political theater on his own. You could see where the script was leading. You just couldn’t figure—in advance—how the main character would react, and therein lies the entertainment factor. 

One of the reasons Gray Davis no longer occupies that office was his inability to manage California’s budget process. Budgets are supposed to be in place on July 1 to start the new fiscal year, but California’s budgets always dragged past the deadline during the Davis years, with legislators squabbling over items that the public generally could not understand, while vendors went unpaid and local governments went on hold. Mr. Schwarzenegger roared into office in last year’s recall election under the banner that he would end that annual Dance of Impasse, cleaning up Sacramento like he cleaned up so many movie problems during his years as an action hero actor, forcing the Legislature down to the bargaining table with the might of his will. You always knew that was bogus. But it was interesting to listen to, and to watch how much of the public bought into it. 

Despite Mr. Schwarzenegger’s early successes, particularly his decisive rolling back of auto registration fees, astute observers thought that the real test was always going to be the state budget, and so it has been. 

During the spring, the governor made separate, private deals with such groups as the state’s colleges and universities, local governments, and the prison guards’ union. In each case, it was reported that these groups promised that they would not push for more money in budget for fiscal year 2005 (the one that started in July) in return for concessions in later years. 

As impressive as this was in removing impediments to the passage of this year’s budget, there were two flaws in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s strategy. The first is that it didn’t solve California’s massive budget problems—it only pushed the crisis down the road aways. 

The second flaw was that Mr. Schwarzenegger made those deals himself, without bringing in leaders of the State Legislature early on for consultation. The governor and his staff probably believed that with these side agreements in place, he could use his political popularity to force the Legislature to pass his submitted budget. 

It didn’t work. State legislators (Democratic state legislators, actually) balked at one of the Republican governor’s side deals in particular—the promise by the governor to local governments that he would support a provision that would protect their sources of income from being raided by the state in future years. Since state legislators have been balancing the state budget recently in large part by taking money from local government—thus absolving them of making the really tough budget-political choices themselves—it is understandable why the legislators would dig their heels in on this issue. And so they have. 

News accounts over the weekend focused on Mr. Schwarzenegger’s bizarre use of the term “girlie-men” at an Ontario, California shopping center rally to describe and—therefore—ridicule these Democratic legislators. What was overlooked was the governor’s proposed solution—that voters kick out Democratic legislators in the upcoming November elections and replace them with Republican legislators who will, presumably, vote for the governor’s next budgets. 

There’s a slight math problem here, though. It takes two thirds of the membership of each branch of the Legislature to pass a budget unless that budget involves no raising of taxes: 54 in the 80 member Assembly, 27 in the 40 member State Senate. Republicans are presently in the minority in both bodies: 32 in the Assembly are Republicans, 14 in the Senate. To gain a two thirds majority in both houses, Republicans would have to gain 22 seats in the Assembly and 13 in the Senate, a watershed political sweep. There are only seven Senate districts in the state and 15 Assembly districts that can be considered competitive between the two parties: districts where the numbers of registered voters from each party are within 10 percentage points of each other. The remaining legislative seats are considered “safe” for one party or the other. 

The problem is, many of those competitive districts are currently being held by Republicans. And so, even if Mr. Schwarzenegger were extraordinarily persuasive in the November elections and every single one of the Democratically held competitive legislative districts (seven in the Assembly and three in the Senate) were swept by Republicans, the Republicans would not even end up with a majority of the California State Legislature. 

And so, rhetoric aside, the governor’s threats against the Democratic members of the Legislature can only be considered as empty. Political theater. While Mr. Schwarzenegger may worry some individual legislators, the Democratic leadership of the State Legislature will remain intact, regardless. 

There was another target Mr. Schwarzenegger might have chosen: the two thirds majority requirement for the Legislature to pass a budget. If the Legislature only needed a simple majority to pass a budget—as legislatures do in most states in the country—the annual deadlock would disappear. A governor would still be able to put a damper on unwanted spending by the use of a veto, which would still require the two thirds majority to override. And even a Republican governor faced with a majority Democratic Legislature could get his or her budget passed by persuading a number of the Democrats to come over to his side, just as President Ronald Reagan did in getting his tax cuts through a Democratic United States Congress. 

Proposition 56, an initiative to drop the two thirds budget-passing requirement down to 55 percent, lost badly in the March elections. Mr. Schwarzengger could revive that idea and put his power and popularity behind it. But to do so he would have to overcome the opposition of organizations like the California Taxpayers’ Association and the California Chamber of Commerce. In addition, the two thirds budget-passing requirement came into being through Proposition 13, and opposing the provisions of Proposition 13 in California is considered—in some conservative localities—as akin to being opposed to God. And that would require a political courage that the governor, perhaps, does not possess. 

And so we have Mr. Schwarzenegger rallying the troops at the Ontario food court, calling the Democrats “girlie-men,” proposing an election solution that would not actually solve the problem even if it came about, and proclaiming, loudly, that, “We want action, not games. We want action, not dialogue. We want action, not the promises. We want action and not the lies that are up there in Sacramento.” 

And all very entertaining.›