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
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
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
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
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.