Commentary: The Governor Man of Calif. has now put his dukes up
SAN DIEGO -- The consensus in many corners of the Golden State is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a failure in office.
I don't know about that. For one thing, that characterization lets the Democratic-controlled Legislature off the hook. For another, when the governor finds a cause he believes in, he still shows plenty of fight. Schwarzenegger got in his share of licks recently when he had the chance to defend illegal immigrants by dispelling popular myths about how they're responsible for the state's $24.3 billion budget deficit.
During a meeting last week with the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee, the governor took questions sent by readers. (The Bee wrote a news story based on the meeting.) Dozens insisted that one simple way out of the state's financial woes would be to eliminate all services for illegal immigrants.
The governor wasn't buying it. He challenged head-on the assumption that it was illegal immigrants who pushed the state into an ocean of red ink, pointing out that the cost to provide services to that population -- estimated at about $5 billion per year -- was a "small percentage" of the spending. This was something that needed to be addressed, he said, but it wasn't entirely responsible for the state's financial woes.
Schwarzenegger supports comprehensive immigration reform, blending together stricter border enforcement, guest workers, and a path to earned legalization for the undocumented. And, in the past, he has been vocal in urging Americans to direct their anger and frustration at the broken immigration system and not at the immigrants themselves.
Now he is speaking out against those who blame illegal immigrants for all of society's ills -- and just as quickly excuse the rest of us of any responsibility.
"I think it's an easy scapegoat for people to point the finger and say, 'Our budget is out of whack because of illegal immigrants,'" Schwarzenegger told the Bee. "It's not. Our budget is out of whack because we have self-inflicted wounds that the Legislature and this state has never really sat down and had the will to go and make the necessary changes that have to be made."
One of the most costly self-inflicted wounds is the staggering payroll for state workers, including teachers, complete with what Schwarzenegger aptly described as "unbelievable benefits that cost the state an enormous amount of money." Those benefits include lavish pensions and lifetime health care -- costs that will continue to skyrocket in the years to come with the retirement of the baby boomers.
But Schwarzenegger didn't stop at defending illegal immigrants. He went further and praised the contribution they make to the California economy and noted that "everything we eat today is picked and created by undocumented immigrants, to a large extent ... and every time we go to a restaurant and every time we go and move into a building, a lot of those buildings are built by undocumented immigrants' hands."
In fact, Schwarzenegger said that he is "happy that they can get the services" because if he were in another country and needed emergency medical care, he wouldn't want authorities there to refuse treatment until they verified his legal status.
It was really remarkable to hear Schwarzenegger lay it out they way he did. Less remarkable is that it made so many Californians uncomfortable. They live in a beautiful and vibrant state, but many of them also live in a state of denial. They don't think about all the restaurants, hotels, ranches, farms, construction firms, landscape companies and homebuilders that depend on illegal immigrant labor because many Californians -- even in an economic recession -- won't take the sorts of menial jobs their grandparents did. They don't think about the fact that when those businesses do well and pay more in taxes, the entire state economy does well. And, most of all, they don't think about the fact that, for all illegal immigrants consume in services, they also pay taxes -- sales, property, even sometimes income taxes with the aid of a U.S. government-issued individual taxpayer identification number.
Meanwhile, with Democrats in Washington mostly paralyzed with fear at the prospect of addressing immigration reform, it was inspiring to see a Republican governor fearlessly grab the issue by the throat. It's a good lesson for those in our nation's capital who talk a good game, dribble all over the court, but are afraid to take their shot.
Mr. President, watch and learn.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.