Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is one heck of a poker player. With Democratic legislators outnumbering their Republican counterparts almost two-to-one, Schwarzenegger has managed to create “government by the minority.” His ace in the hole, of course, is the two-thirds rule, a constitutional provision that requires passage of the state budget by a two-thirds vote. The Democrats are just shy of that lopsided margin in both houses, which leaves Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republicans in the catbird seat.
With the proposed $100 billion general fund budget $26 billion short, the says that the entire difference must be made up in spending cuts. That’s a different approach than the governors in almost every other state who have sought to balance their shortfalls by a combination of spending cuts and new revenues. But Schwarzenegger claims the people don’t want to pay any more taxes and fees, so we’ll just have to cut, cut, and cut. Lacking the votes to overcome his stance, Democrats have been forced to back off of every proposal that has even hinted at new revenues.
There is no doubt that at the end of the day, Schwarzenegger will have his way. Yet the question remains, is this what the voters really want?
Sixteen months from now in the next round of state elections, the voters will have experienced the cuts first hand through shorter school years; larger classrooms; reduced services for the elderly and disabled; tens of thousands of students blocked from admission to state universities; abandoned fire stations and fewer police officers; and a surge in homelessness from draconian cutbacks to state welfare programs. Only then will we truly appreciate the merits of Schwarzenegger’s move.
It’s the political gamble of a lifetime. If the voters agree with the streamlined programs and services, it could be the beginning of Republican renewal. If they don’t, Arnold Schwarzenegger will become the man who played the wrong hand while sacrificing California as collateral.
Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, appears regularly on NBC Bay Area as a political analyst.