3,507* Words, But Who's Counting?

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A pig and a pony. A dose of old-fashioned Republican orthodoxy and a bit of patriotism. A crowd pleasing defense of public education and a novel proposal that, if adopted, wouldn't be fully understood until long after he leaves Sacramento.

It was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's last State of the State, and it was a speech that reinforced the reality that he's unlike any other politician to have ever held the state's top job.

The Wednesday morning address to the Legislature and a statewide audience was, in some ways, most notable for what it was not -- a valedictory farewell that touted past accomplishments.

Instead, the governor's speech was amazingly similar to his very first State of the State on this same day in January 2004.

Today: "The first priority for the coming year is to get the economy and get the jobs back," he said today. Jobs, jobs, jobs."
2004: "Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. The more jobs the better."

Today: "...Federal funds have to be part of our budget solution because the federal government is part of our budget problem."
2004: "...More federal tax money for homeland security, for criminal aliens, water resources, highways, and other needs."

Today: "We can no longer afford to cut higher education either. The priorities have become out of whack over the years."
2004: "In the past two years, college fees have increased over 40 percent. We must end this boom-and-bust cycle of widely fluctuating fees with a predictable, capped fee policy for college students and their parents."

But the truly vintage Schwarzenegger today was the attempt to tell everyone something that would make them get on board with his agenda.

For Republicans, it was the governor's California Jobs Initiative, a package of tax credits, downsized environmental regulation (in some cases), and "frivolous lawsuit" crackdowns. For Democrats, it was the pledge to make higher education funding more of a priority than spending on prisons. And for everyone, it was a pledge to again ask for more money from the federal government.

Will it work? Schwarzenegger tried to seal the deal with a steak and lobster lunch for the Legislature at a private club a couple of blocks from the state Capitol (though some wondered whether it was a social affair or a policy confab). But it didn't take long for members of both major parties to say the package of ideas isn't quite to their liking.

Democrats expressed skepticism about tax incentives for a state that's essentially broke. "I don’t think that this year is the year to expand tax credits," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass in a news conference after the speech. Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said if tax credits were to be enacted, they needed to be matched "dollar for dollar" with cancellation of tax breaks for big business that were the price of getting GOP votes for the budget last year.

Republicans, while more muted, seem nonplussed about the Guv's prison ideas. "His ideas for reducing prison spending are off the mark," wrote Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) on the FlashReport blog.

And still others blanched at his call for California's congressional delegation to reject the health care bill as it now stands on Capitol Hill (in particularly tough language, he called the current plan "a trough of bribes, deals and loopholes").

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the speech... the only big proposal not leaked to the press beforehand... was Schwarzenegger's linking of money for colleges and universities with prisons. "What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?," he asked before answering the question himself.

His solution: a constitutional amendment that says the state can't spend more general fund dollars on prisons than it does on higher ed. More on this one in the days to come, but one point is hard to miss: the proposal, a ballot measure that controls part of the state budget, could easily be derided as 'ballot box budgeting,' a system he's criticized in the past.

But for now, Schwarzenegger is on offense, the rest of Sacramento's political class is on defense... and the test will be how long he can drive the conversation over what happens in 2010.

(*3,507 is, by my count, the number of words in the governor's State of the State speech today, not counting the perfunctory acknowledgments of guests in the audience.)

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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