Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has hit a rough patch lately, to put it charitably. His poll numbers are down, and he’s targeted by a relentless torrent of negative TV ads paid for by the state’s unions, which harass his every move. He further truncated his reform-initiative package by deep-sixing public-employee pension reform. And he’s waded into the political thicket of illegal immigration with mixed messages on border control.
While legislative Democrats and their government-employee-union allies seek to convince voters Schwarzenegger is too hard-hearted, the greater danger is they won’t think he isn’t hard-hearted enough–that Arnold is more bark than bite.
Obviously, Governor Schwarzenegger faces formidable obstacles. The legislature’s Democratic majority is unwilling to buck its public-employee union allies. And despite some voter trends favorable to Republicans, California remains a Democratic state.
Governor Schwarzenegger might consider looking east to another state where a Republican governor must govern with an overwhelmingly liberal Democrat legislature, in a state so lopsidedly Democrat it makes California look like Idaho.
In Massachusetts, GOP Governor Mitt Romney governs a state where only 13 percent of the voters are Republicans–which hasn’t stopped Romney from achieving political and policy successes. They haven’t been strictly on spectacular, big-idea policy initiatives. But by enacting relatively modest policy successes resulting in real taxpayer savings and better public policy that improves citizens’ lives, Romney has generated political capital with Massachusetts voters–which translates into sustainable voter trust and support.
For example, Romney is effectively tackling something not normally associated with Republicans: homelessness. Two years ago he created an interagency council to coordinate the $250 million being spent every year by various state agencies on the homeless, and shifted the focus from coping with homelessness to solving it.
For example, Massachusetts was spending $20 million annually on vouchers to house homeless people in hotels and motels–an ineffective policy abused by the homeless while making it difficult for case managers to monitor and assist them.
The homeless knew that if the shelters were full, they’d get a housing voucher redeemable at a hotel or motel, so many intentionally arrived “too late” when the shelters were likely to be full, in order to secure a voucher.
The Romney administration reversed the incentive by giving priority for the housing vouchers to those who had been in the shelter the longest. In 2004, according to the Boston Globe, this approach “had eliminated 599 hotel and motel rooms used by overflow homeless families, transfer[ed] 200 families to shelters and another 207 to what legislators hope will be permanent private housing units.” That minor policy change saved the state tens of millions of dollars without displacing any homeless.
Romney used the savings from his homelessness programs to create the John and Abigail Adams scholarship program, under which any Massachusetts student who scores in the top 25 percent of the state’s comprehensive assessment test qualifies for an eight-semester tuition waiver at Massachusetts’s state university, state colleges, and community colleges.
Granted, these initiatives may seem small bore given the scope of the problems facing California government, but this approach has virtues. As the saying goes, he who can be trusted in small matters can be trusted in large matters, as well. By solving some bite-size problems, Schwarzenegger can show Californians he’s not only a dramatic agent of change but adept at the business of governance, as well.
Like Mitt Romney, Schwarzenegger might pick some less-global policy areas crying out for commonsense reform where sensible Democrats would work with him. If the Democratic-legislative leadership reflexively attacks these proposals, it simply reinforces Schwarzenegger’s point that they’re captives of the status quo, which in turn adds some strength to his big-picture reform efforts.
Such an approach may be modest in scope and goals, but the house of sound governance and fiscal sanity is built one brick at a time.
–Adam D. Probolsky, is president of Probolsky Research, a public opinion research firm based in Southern California.