On tough issues, governor's go-to plan does little

The San Diego Union-Tribune

Mar 13, 2007

SACRAMENTO -- Creating commissions to address thorny issues has

become a hallmark of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's governing style.

The problem is they never seem to amount to much.

High-profile Schwarzenegger advisory panels on prisons and

government efficiency went nowhere. Now the governor has launched

commissions on issues lawmakers have struggled with for years:

prison sentences, the state water system and public-employee


An in-depth report on schools requested by another

Schwarzenegger panel, along with legislative leaders and the state

schools chief, is scheduled to be released tomorrow.

"Commissions are where intractable issues go to die," said Thad

Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California San

Diego. "They are not hugely important."

Kousser said he is unaware of any academic studies of government

commissions that are regarded by some not as an important part of

the political process, but as more show than substance.

Commissions can make it seem like tough choices may be made that

alienate key constituencies, he said. But unpopular or unworkable

commission proposals are easily orphaned, left hanging without

support from lawmakers.

"Commissions are a way to relieve some political pressure, but

they rarely lead to results," Kousser said.

A less-critical view of commissions comes from a man who was

chairman of two well-publicized commissions that produced no direct

results -- Bill Hauck, president of the California Business


Hauck was co-chairman of a commission appointed by the

Republican governor in 2004 that held half a dozen hearings on the

California Performance Review, which emerged from the governor's

campaign pledge to "blow up the boxes" and make government more


Meeting stiff opposition, Schwarzenegger dropped an attempt to

enact even a small part of the 1,200 recommendations in the

sweeping overhaul proposal: eliminating 88 boards and commissions.

The governor made no further attempt to implement the plan, calling

it flawed.

Hauck also led a California Constitutional Revision Commission,

authorized by legislation, that held 30 public hearings during two

years before issuing recommendations in 1996 for revamping state


"The advocates for the status quo are more numerous and better

organized than those who will support these needed changes," Hauck

said in a prophetic letter accompanying the report that could have

applied to the subsequent commission's proposals as well.

Looking back, Hauck said the ideas in the constitutional

commission report serve as a kind of benchmark and are still

discussed. He thinks some of the recommendations in the subsequent

Performance Review that do not require legislation have probably

been implemented by department heads.

"There is no final qualitative way to measure whether the effort

of people in these things is productive or not," Hauck said in an


The report on schools due tomorrow, funded by four foundations,

pulls together 23 school studies dealing with cost and efficiency.

A commission appointed by the governor two years ago was among

those requesting the report.

Schwarzenegger formed the Governor's Committee on Education

Excellence instead of appointing a panel authorized in legislation

in 2002 by former state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, the Quality

Education Committee.

The committee envisioned by Alpert would have determined the

cost of a quality education in different areas of the state -- a

change from a debate that has focused on bringing per-pupil funding

in California up to the national average.

The head of Schwarzenegger's education committee, Ted Mitchell,

said the governor wanted a broader look at schools that went beyond

whether funding is adequate. The committee will draw on the report

due tomorrow and its own work as it makes recommendations.

"We want to make recommendations to the Legislature that are

clear, that are bold and actionable," said Mitchell, a former

president of Occidental College who now heads the NewSchools

Venture Fund in San Francisco.

The education committee may have its recommendations ready by

January, when Schwarzenegger also is scheduled to receive reports

from his panels on water and pensions.

With an executive order last September, the governor created the

Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force to provide a long-term

management program for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the source

of about a quarter of San Diego's water.

Crumbling Delta levees threaten not only the water supply but

major transportation and energy lines. It's a battleground for

competing interests: urban users, farmers and environmentalists. In

addition, Northern Californians fear a raid on their water by a

more populous Southern California.

A proposal in 1982 for a canal to connect the Sacramento River

with southbound state and federal aqueducts, bypassing the natural

bottleneck of the Delta, was favored by Southern Californians but

failed because of an overwhelming "no" vote in Northern


The governor established the Public Employee Post-Employment

Benefits Commission to propose a plan for dealing with rising

pension and retiree health costs for state and local governments.

The chairman is Gerald Parsky of Rancho Santa Fe.

As he launched his ill-fated "Year of Reform" initiatives two

years ago, Schwarzenegger dropped a proposal to switch new

government pensions from guaranteed monthly payments to 401(k)-

style investment plans, which angered powerful public-employee


A change in accounting rules requires governments to begin

reporting their retiree health debt in June 2008. The nonpartisan

Legislative Analyst estimates that the unfunded liability for

retired state worker health care is $40 billion to $70 billion.

Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through legislation

that reduced state worker pension benefits. When former Gov. Gray

Davis, the first Democratic governor in 16 years, took office in

1999, pension benefits were increased again.

No legislation has been introduced yet for the 17-member

sentencing commission proposed by the governor as part of a $11

billion plan to expand and reform an overcrowded prison system,

where 173,000 prisoners are packed into buildings designed for

100,000 inmates.

His push to build more prisons is a reversal for Schwarzenegger,

whose first state budget in January 2004 proposed the creation of a

commission to recommend prison closures.

The new administration expected to reduce the prison population

by diverting some parole violators into drug programs and halfway

houses. But the struggling program was dropped after a victims

group ran television ads blasting the governor for releasing

dangerous criminals.

A commission on prisons appointed by Schwarzenegger and chaired

by former Gov. George Deukmejian issued a report in July 2004 with

239 recommendations, including turning over administration of the

troubled state Department of Corrections to a citizens


The department is still run by the Schwarzenegger

administration, and critics say the Deukmejian report was basically

shelved without action. A department spokesman, Bill Sessa, said

"bits and pieces" of the Deukmejian report are contained in

Schwarzenegger's prison proposals.