What Hath Arnold Wrought?

AUGUST 26, 2010

We’re at that time in a governor’s term when we start hearing the word “legacy” on a nearly daily basis. A Nexis search of the terms “Arnold Schwarzenegger” and “legacy” in newspapers over the last month yielded 141 hits. Schwarzenegger, a showman almost from birth, has without doubt made a spectacle of his nearly seven years as California’s governor.

Even at this point in his administration, talk of legacy – that not-so-subtle attempt to predict how future historians will view a chief executive’s time in office – is premature. Peoples’ perceptions of actions changes dramatically after terms of office end, and usually people have a short memory where slights, missteps and even outright graft are concerned.

But it’s never too early to ask ourselves what Schwarzenegger has been doing all these years. Especially considering the evidence that the man who made millions making films called Terminator, Predator, Eraser and Commando may not know himself.

Much has been made in the press lately of Schwarzenegger’s call to “smoothen” out the tax system – “And let’s broaden it to all services so that everyone pays taxes, not just half of the people pay tax and the other half doesn’t and this half has to make up for this half,” is how he put it during an Aug. 24 appearance before the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce. But during that same speech in that same Santa Barbara Municipal Airport conference room where he talked taxes, Schwarzenegger also talked a very tired line about needing to run the state “like a business.” As he did so, however, he let slip that he might consider his inability to get government out of the way of private industry as his biggest failure as governor.

“Government still has not really learned,” Schwarzenegger said. “I mean, we tried in the last six years everything we can to make government be a partner rather than an obstacle. Too many times government has been an obstacle. When you ask businesses, as you know, what is your biggest problem, they always say government. Government is always in the way, they are the biggest problem. So we’ve got to get rid of that. We’ve got to go and be helpful to businesses.”

These are extraordinary words from the man who is fighting – his word – to preserve the state’s greenhouse gas laws that grant unprecedented power to the California Air Resources Board to target, and in some cases criminally prosecute, small businesses that, for whatever reason, do not follow the state’s myriad air pollution regulations.

They are extraordinary words from the man who is championing a massive statewide bullet train network that will cost somewhere between $45 billion and $80 billion and impose at least $5 billion in eminent domain takings on private property owners across California.

And these are extraordinary words from the man who has said, in the name of environmental protection, that he would sign a bill banning paper and plastic grocery bags, imposing significant costs on working families everywhere.

Not long after Schwarzenegger first came to power, he promised to “blow up the boxes” of state government and completely revamp the way in which the state’s departments operate. Known as the California Performance Review, it eventually filled hundreds of pages of findings, conclusions and recommendations.

It also went nowhere.

That Schwarzenegger is still talking in grand terms about remaking state government – while continuing to perpetuate many of the same practices he supposedly opposes – he is only making the case that his administration has, in six-plus years, gone exactly nowhere.

A decade from now, we will probably remember Schwarzenegger with some degree of fondness. But when asked to recall what it was he actually did as governor, most people – including Arnold himself – will have a difficult time answering.

-Anthony Pignataro

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