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Amid Broken Promises, Many Begin to Doubt Schwarzenegger

Los Angeles Times | January 20, 2005

by George Skelton

The question political insiders are starting to ask about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is potentially one of the most damaging that can be asked about a politician. Can you believe him? Can you trust him? Will he keep his word?

Insiders do not typify all voters, of course. But what insiders know or think often, ultimately, works its way out to the electorate. Sacramento insiders were down on Gray Davis years before the public ever turned on him.

Actor Schwarzenegger prospered in a world of make-believe. Gov. Schwarzenegger is expected to deal in truth, even if most politicians do bend it.

And the public reacts especially unkindly to politicians who don't keep their word.

One example: Schwarzenegger's political mentor, former Gov. Pete Wilson, promised he wouldn't run for president if voters gave him a second term. Soon after the votes were counted, Wilson broke his promise and his political stock plummeted.

Schwarzenegger hasn't done anything nearly that egregious. But he does seem to have promised too many things to too many people and now can't keep all his vows. This is beginning to take a toll on his image among insiders. For the first time, his credibility is being questioned.

He pledged not to raise political money from special interests, insisting he didn't need their dollars because he's rich. But he has been raising funds from special interests at a record clip, far out-groveling Davis.

Schwarzenegger actually told the Sacramento Bee editorial board Tuesday, in effect, that he needs to raise money from his special interests in order to beat his opponents' interests. Referring to the ballot measures he is advocating, the governor said: "What's important is that I can reform California. And the way we can reform California is if I have the money [to] confront the special interests."

There's a growing list of, well, truth-stretching.

If voters passed Proposition 58 -- the balanced-budget requirement -- Sacramento politicians would have "to tear up the credit card and throw it away," he proclaimed a year ago. But last week, he proposed $6 billion in new borrowing over the next two years.

He keeps insisting that the state "live within its means." But you're not living within your means if you pay for groceries by piling more debt on the charge card. Most families would pare expenses and also try to expand their means. Earn more income.

Raise taxes. But Schwarzenegger, while campaigning for governor, promised not to raise taxes. "Guaranteed."

Problem is, that promise now has smacked head-on into another pledge he made, this one to California schools. And since he can't keep both promises, he's reneging on the commitment to schools.

One potential political problem is that education is government's most popular program.

But beyond that, people tend to lose respect for a politician who breaks his word. And there's no question the governor promised one thing and did another.

Government junkies will recall that shortly after Schwarzenegger took office, he earned widespread kudos for negotiating the unprecedented budget deal with school interests, led by the California Teachers Assn. The education coalition agreed not to fight for $2 billion that schools were owed under Proposition 98. In turn, Schwarzenegger promised, among other things, to give schools their normal share of any new tax revenue if the economy picked up. "Trust me," he said at the announcement.

The economy generated $5 billion in new revenue. But spending rose $10 billion. The deficit was projected at $8.6 billion. Taxes weren't an option for Schwarzenegger. So he dinged schools, because he already was smacking welfare moms, the aged poor, the disabled and highway projects.

To his credit, the governor did propose a $2.9-billion increase in school funding, which meets enrollment growth and inflation. But this is $2.3 billion less than what schools are owed under Proposition 98. And it wasn't the deal.

Adding insult, he also proposed that local school districts pick up the state's $500 million share of contributions to teacher retirement plans.

Asked if -- and why -- he was breaking his promise to schools, Schwarzenegger last week told reporters simply: "I will continue keeping my promise to the California people that I take care of education…. We have to, at the same time, look at all of the needs…. There is only so much money that we have."

School interests feel betrayed. So do civil service unions. They claim Schwarzenegger reneged on a deal involving pension changes. That one his office denies.

A year ago, then-teachers union lobbyist John Hein was praising Schwarzenegger. He had been the lead school negotiator. Now Hein says: "I have a big question mark in my mind about him. It's entirely conceivable he's not fully aware of the consequences of all this….

"I think character is really coming into the fray here. Breaking his word, that's not good. It's cancerous in a political environment."

Insiders may think twice about negotiating with the governor. "I'd be a little more skeptical," says CTA President Barbara Kerr. "I'm not very trusting right now. In my world, a promise is a promise."

A celebrity governor can get away with a lot. But he can't get away with becoming known as a guy whose word isn't good.

Trust. Integrity. They're a politician's stock in trade -- more important even than "reform."