Arnold’s Choice

We had a little bit of a debate the last few days at work (a public radio newsroom) about how much importance in our newscasts we should give Governor Schwarzenegger’s “May revise” — the adjustments to the state budget he first released in February. I took the position that since we all know that the situation is bad, that the revision would include some new, but predictable, cuts, and that the revision release itself amounts to little more than a political ritual, we shouldn’t waste a lot of time on the event. On the other hand, if we wanted to devote some resources to talking about the real impacts the state’s budget calamity have already had–effects on people and institutions, effects that might tell us something about where the state’s headed with the next round of cuts–that might be worth something to our listeners. My view didn’t sway anyone, and in the event, we wound up doing a smart and well-informed take on the story, though one that focuses almost entirely on the political chess game behind the budget.

As It happened, I was off work yesterday when the governor made his announcement. I caught just a snippet of it–but it was a provocative snippet. The governor appeared before the media, while outside the state Capitol protesters decried more cuts to programs to the poor and sick and to the state’s public schools. Solemnly, Schwarzenegger detaied his bad news and talked about how those around him had failed to heed his cals for budget reform. But one phrase stood out from the rest: “no choice.”

“I now have no choice,” the governor said, “but to stand here today and to call for the elimination of some very important programs.” In fact, Schwarzenegger called his decisions about cuts a “Sophie’s Choice.” He sounds tormented. How tormented? Here’s a glimpse, courtesy of The New York Times Magazine, from last year’s budget crisis (a.k.a., “Sophie’s Choice 2009”): “Schwarzenegger reclined deeply in his chair, lighted an eight-inch cigar and declared himself ‘perfectly fine,’ despite the fiscal debacle and personal heartsickness all around him. ‘Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,’ Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, ‘I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,’ he said. ‘I’m going to lay back with a stogie.’ ”

“No choice”? Well, one of the governor’s fellow citizens begs to disagree.

You could step up, governor, and show a little moral leadership and talk about how to raise money while we’re in the crisis. Yes, I mean taxes, which many Californians pay without flinching as part of the cost of living here. Of course, you’ve never been one to tell the voters they might need to pay a little for some of the privileges they enjoy. When the last governor and Legislature reinstated a motor vehicle tax during a crisis, you chose to pander to the anti-taxers who threw a tantrum. That tax alone–which had been suspended during boom times with an explicit provision it could be reimposed if the state’s finances unraveled–would have prevented much of the budget crisis we’re facing today.

So, there are choices, governor. Pretending there are none simply avoids responsibility for finding a way through the mess we’re in.

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