Unkindest Cut

The Arnold has landed.

Over the past two weeks, California's new chief executive has made abundantly apparent the kind of governor he means to be. During his abbreviated gubernatorial campaign in late summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger ran as something of a Rorschach test. Voters could choose from among a number of Arnolds: the enviro, the tightwad, the Kennedy-by-marriage, the Friedmanite-by-inclination, the compassionate centrist. By scrupulously avoiding print journalists and limiting his debate appearances to a measly one, Schwarzenegger never had to clarify exactly which Arnold would be calling the shots in the statehouse.

Now we know. It's Conan the Barbarian, in one of his less reflective moods.

Schwarzenegger's plan for dealing with the state's budget crisis is to put before the voters in next year's March primary a $15 billion bond measure to cover the shortfall in this year's budget. But not the entire shortfall. Rather than float a $17 billion bond or a $19 billion bond, he's designated $1.9 billion for cuts in this year's budget, with an additional $1.9 billion in next year's.

The proposed cuts come largely from just two areas of the state's responsibilities: transportation, and programs that serve the disabled, the poor and their children. For starters, Schwarzenegger wants to cut off enrollment come January in the state's Healthy Families Program, which provides health care to 700,000 low-income children whose parents have no health coverage at work. (California has more than 6 million residents without health insurance.) Californians who heard Schwarzenegger on this subject during the campaign's one debate may be a bit surprised by this decision. When the subject was raised, Schwarzenegger criticized then-Gov. Gray Davis for doing too little to expand the program. The government, he said, "has not done a good job in reaching out and finding the people and letting them know to sign up. . . . If I become governor, I would immediately go out there and get it so everyone knows about it and everyone signs up because we must insure our families, the low-income families, especially the children."

That wasn't just misdirection; it was misdirection on steroids. As of January, if the legislature approves this cutback, children in need of glasses, eligible for the program but not yet enrolled, will have their names added to a waiting list. If they can't see so well, they may not notice the hundred thousand or so other names on the list.

And that may not be the unkindest cut. Schwarzenegger is also proposing to take $282 million from programs to help the developmentally disabled -- Californians suffering from autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and the like. In 1969 wild-eyed radical governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman Act, creating an entitlement for the developmentally disabled in the state. Schwarzenegger now proposes cutbacks in programs that California offers the 626,000 of its citizens with mental or physical impairments affecting their ability to learn and speak: music and art therapy, camping, horseback riding. He also proposes to suspend the Lanterman Act, in order to freeze enrollment in developmental disability programs come January. The new applicants may experience some long waits, because the disabilities of the current enrollees are not curable and their need for therapy is often lifelong.

This all may make for some interesting table talk between Arnold and his family-by-marriage. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, his mother-in-law, is, of course, the founder of the Special Olympics, a privately funded foundation that offers sports activities to the developmentally disabled. Schwarzenegger himself has been a spokesman for the Special Olympics. Just last month, he proclaimed that he "envision[ed] a world where people with intellectual disabilities are fully accepted, and where every person has the opportunity to succeed." That world, apparently, will not include California so long as Schwarzenegger calls the shots.

Today the first anti-Arnold demonstration of his tenure as governor is scheduled to be held at the state capitol. The marchers will be advocates for the developmentally disabled, who doubtless never imagined that it would be a Kennedy in-law who laid waste to the most humane program Ronald Reagan ever created.

Schwarzenegger has told the state's Democratic-controlled legislature that he wants these cuts enacted during its current special session, and he's prodding the legislators to place his bond measure and a state spending cap on the March ballot. (The constitutional deadline for doing that is Friday.) The spending cap would mandate that any increase in revenue that would come, for instance, as the state recovers from the dot-com bust, be directed toward tax cuts and a reserve fund.

Further increases for, say, school spending would be off the table.

The spending cap would also grant the governor the right to terminate any program he saw fit if the state was running a deficit; the legislature could overturn such a decision only by a two-thirds vote of each house. "The people elected a governor," protested Democratic state Senate leader John Burton, "not a czar." Or a Conan.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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