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Looking back at Schwarzenegger

The governor leaves office with a budget in desperate shape, but he set a new political course for California.

December 27, 2010

The governor leaves office with a budget in desperate shape, but he set a new political course for California.

Was the recall worth it? Is California better off for having ousted Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, just after reelecting him to a second term, and replacing him with perhaps the most unlikely of governors, movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It's a question that has been asked a lot over the last several months as Schwarzenegger winds down his second term, with California's finances in the worst shape since the Depression and his approval rating lower than Davis' was at its nadir. To answer the question is to assess Schwarzenegger's tenure, but also to assess Californians -- their mood, their attitude toward government, their sense of themselves.

The Times editorial page seeks to answer the question in part by re-examining its take on the recall, on the governor and on his policies over the last seven years, and finds the period filled with lost opportunities and costly diversions of attention. But we also find that a state that had been drifting -- unable to take action, except anti- government action, on such issues as water, infrastructure and political reform -- has begun to move forward again.

This page was no fan of the recall. "There were no reasonable standards in calling for a new election," we wrote. "Davis was elected last year with 47% of the vote; months later, political opponents spent millions to replay the election. Now the state will spend $66 million for a special election, with 135 official candidates, come one, come all. If the recall prevails, the winner, with a minority of the overall vote, would replace a governor who got a large plurality. It's undemocratic."

As for Schwarzenegger, we said, what a shame that he failed to use his campaign to lead a serious discussion of what ails California and how to fix it.

"Instead, he was happy to feed voters predictable lines from his movies: 'Let's terminate them. Let's say ? "Hasta la vista, baby" to those guys.' His outreach to the common man was, shall we say, thin: He told firefighters he identified with them because he had played one in a film. He ran away from a widely respected advisor, investor Warren Buffett, because Buffett dared to suggest that the state's property tax structure was out of whack. A moderate Republican who had a golden opportunity to bring people together, Schwarzenegger squandered that capital by spending most of his campaign ducking the direct and tough questioning that he would have to face as governor."

We took no pains to hide our lack of enthusiasm. Yet we acknowledged, as voters did boot Davis from office, that Schwarzenegger brought with him some unusual opportunities.

Untraditional in many senses of the word, he arrived in Sacramento without many of the personal and political shackles that restrain most governors. He didn't need fame -- he already had it. He didn't need money -- as he reminded voters often during his campaign. Born in Austria, he was ineligible to be elected to the White House, so he was not seduced by presidential politics. A Republican married to a Kennedy, he was unencumbered by party bargains and loyalties.

But he remained, for a time, bound to some of the assertions he made during his campaign and the expectations that he would follow through on them.

For example, the car tax. Since 1935, when the state vehicle license fee replaced local property taxes on cars, Californians paid their car taxes to provide funding for cities and counties. The rate stood at 2% in 1948 -- and remained there until 1999, when a surplus of funds allowed the tax to be offset. When the economy tanked and the surplus disappeared, then-Gov. Davis did as the law allowed by re-imposing the full 2% -- and in so doing gave Schwarzenegger one of his strongest campaign messages. Voters embraced him as a tax-cutter, and he made good on his promise by re-slashing the vehicle license fee.

That cut would have left cities and counties destitute, and Democrats in the Legislature provided state funding to backfill the car tax monies lost to local government. That put a permanent $6-billion hole in the state budget.

But if Schwarzenegger had been merely a movie-star governor interested only in applause lines, he could have left it at that. He didn't. By his second term, when the state's structural deficit, now compounded by the car-tax cut, met the mortgage meltdown and the resulting recession, the governor was ready to inch the tax back up -- not to its historic level, but at least up to the same level as other property taxes in the state. He told a television audience that flip-flopping had gotten a bad rap -- and he proposed temporary sales tax and income tax increases to help the state weather the storm.

"Schwarzenegger deserves credit, not scorn," this page said, "for being willing to back away from his campaign pledge -- fairly typical of California candidates -- of no new taxes, ever."

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