Schwarzenegger: Size Matters, Details Negotiable

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It seems Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s position at this juncture of the budget deficit debate can be summed up thusly: he's resolute on the size of the needed solution, but flexible on how to get there. In every way but one, that is.

That was the thrust of the governor’s message in a 22 minute one-on-one interview this afternoon in his state Capitol conference room. You can hear my reporting on the conversation tomorrow morning on The California Report, and the full interview will be able to be heard online on our website.

Schwarzenegger was adamant that legislators send him a package worth $24 billion – the amount he's identified as needed to resolve both the deficit and the state's depleted reserves.

"It would be unwise to attempt to do anything smaller than that," he said. "The economy has not bottomed out… we should be prepared for that."

He continued by saying that legislators "know what needs to be done; they are all very smart people." But unlike many budget watchers… even his own finance director who recently said there were very few cuts left, Schwarzenegger sounded like a man who isn't convinced that all of the (his word) "fat" had been trimmed from the state budget. That seems to come across in this excerpt where I ask him about his willingness to accept a less-than-$24 billion proposal.

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And when talk turned to his own budget proposal -- specifically, his plan to dismantle welfare assistance and health care for children from poor families -- Schwarzenegger insisted that legislators could find equally valuable solutions, if only they tried.

One idea he floated… similar to ideas he's pitched before but now sounding more far-reaching... was major privatization of state prisons. Prison spending has easily been one of the fastest growing parts of the budget, and the systemic woes behind prison walls have become the monkey Schwarzenegger can't seem to get off his back.

The governor said privatization of many (or perhaps most?) prison operations would be 1/3 less expensive. "If (legislators) say, 'Here, we found $1 billion in prisons'," he said, "we can go right away and put money into the Healthy Families program, into CalWORKs, into Cal Grants." (CalGrants is the student financial aid program the Guv has recommended scrapping in order to save money).

In the following excerpt, he talks about finding money in other programs.

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But on one issue… Governor Schwarzenegger remained firm: no new taxes. While there are revenue increases in his plan (many fall into the category even he calls "gimmicks"), the governor said not only is he opposed to a tax increase… but that he made it crystal clear to legislative leaders in February.

"We have all sat here at this table," he said as we sat at his long conference room table, "and all four legislative leaders have promised that we will never come back to that subject again."

You can hear that excerpt below.

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The interview happened just before the budget conference committee voted to reject some of the major Schwarzenegger cut proposals, and also before Democrats unveiled two revenue proposals: a $15 a year vehicle fee to pay for state parks and a tax on oil production in California.

Tomorrow, more from the interview… including the governor's swift -- and somwhat pointed -- defense of his legacy on budget issues.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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