Schwarzenegger Polishes, Jabs on Budget Legacy

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Governor's Office Photo

Arnold Schwarzenegger summoned Capitol reporters this afternoon to discuss a $9.87 billion budget fix he's asking legislators to approve.

But what was much more interesting was Schwarzenegger's defense-- at times, somewhat angry -- of his legacy on California's fiscal woes.

The governor is now less than four weeks away from leaving office, and continues to dismiss any and all suggestions that he simply step aside and let Governor-elect Jerry Brown figure out what to do about all of the state's red ink.

As a result, Schwarzenegger offered up a package of ideas (PDF) that range from more social services cuts to a renewed effort to assess a fee on home insurance policies to pay for state firefighting costs. And on both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, even with new members, those revived ideas are likely going... well... nowhere.

"It's probably more appropriate that we make any agreements about midyear budget action with the governor-elect," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in an interview this afternoon. Steinberg clarified, though, that he wasn't dismissing the current governor from having some sort of role.

But again, what was most fascinating in the early afternoon gubernatorial event was Arnold Schwarzenegger's preemptive strike on any reporter's story that might suggest he's fallen short on budget issues over these seven years.

First, he argued statistics.

"Spending, under my administration, was the lowest of any governor in history," he said. "We have only had increases of 1.3% year over year."

Here's where things get downright murky. Based on a quick look at expenditure data compiled by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, the governor's assertion is only in the ballpark if one both includes the dramatic downsizing of spending caused by the Great Recession and excludes some of the debt service caused by the Proposition 57 deficit bonds he persuaded voters to approve in 2004.

Even then, though, there were years where general fund spending went up sharply -- especially in 2006-2007 and in 2007-2008.

Schwarzenegger has been testy about the way the numbers are crunched before; in a June 2009 interview, he chastised me for asking about those same years and repeated the argument that "inherited debt" accounts for a significant part of the spending on his watch.

The polishing of his budget legacy this afternoon prompted me to ask him about what role he may have played in the fact that so few voters seem to understand the budget process; time and again, pollsters report Californians think they can preserve the most costly programs and erase the deficit... at the same time.

His answer? The press is to blame. He pointed to all of the news stories these last few weeks about a $25 billion budget problem, and how the public doesn't understand that's over an 18 month time frame.

"Since when are we trying to confuse the people, to all of a sudden make it an 18 month budget?" he asked.

With all due respect to the governor, part of the answer may lie in his own mirror:

"The $42 billion deficit is a rock upon our chest and we cannot breathe until we get it off." - Governor Schwarzenegger in his 2009 State of the State address, using an 18-month projection for the state deficit.

"Over the next 18 months, preliminary estimates from the Legislative Analyst's Office show the budget deficit reaching a staggering $28 billion." - Governor Schwarzenegger's statement on December 1, 2008 when calling a special legislative session to deal with the crisis.

At these times, just to name two, the larger deficit number has served the governor's purposes of trying to spark action. Now, as the year-and-a-half deficit projection has many Californians wondering what happened since just October 8 when the current budget was signed into law, the governor would prefer to focus on the smaller number (though most of his proposals submitted today wouldn't kick in until next year).

We don't know whether Arnold Schwarzenegger will do any more Q&As with Capitol reporters -- on the budget or anything else. And no one knows how history will ultimately judge his fiscal legacy. But as he departs and Brown arrives, assume a great many more people will be digging through the record.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • H Peterson

    The Governor fails to mention that he also increased the deficit by rescinding the Vehicle License fee, and precided over other tax cuts. This part of the deficit equation has been ignored at both the Federal and State levels. widely deceminated by the media, tradional or otherwise: How great the economy was doing under the Davis administration and the Clinton adminstration.

  • Skip K

    Arnold, when you leave the Governor’s office at the end of the day today just turn out the lights and fly south to your home and stay there. You are no longer needed in Sacramento and others can take care of any pressing issues that arise. You have screwed up things so badly that it will take a magician like Jerry Brown to straighten the mess out. What a bad dream you turned out to be for the people of California. Listen: Do you hear the fat lady singing? The people of what’s left of this great State do.