San Luis Obispo County residents put Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the spot Thursday at the Madonna Inn with questions about four of the eight propositions that will appear on Tuesday’s special election ballot.
Despite his intention to rally support, Schwarzenegger’s visit pulled in hundreds of local protesters who picketed outside the inn, waving signs and chanting “SLO says no” as cars drove by, many of them honking in approval.
“I think it’s amazing that there were 1,500 San Luis Obispo County residents here protesting his lousy initiatives,” said Stew Jenkins of San Luis Obispo who protested for several hours. Jenkins ran as the Democratic nominee for assembly in fall 2004.
Schwarzenegger spoke to about 300 invited community members, 120 of whom were randomly selected from subscriber lists to the San Luis Obispo Tribune and the Santa Maria Times. The two newspapers and KSBY sponsored the evening’s hour-long, town hall style event, which was broadcasted live on KSBY.
Opponents of Propositions 74, 75, 76 and 77 spoke first and answered questions from the audience. In the second half, Schwarzenegger spoke in support of the propositions and also fielded questions.
Schwarzenegger argued that his propositions were necessary because the legislators today are the same ones who existed when the state nearly went bankrupt two years ago.
“The only problem is they recalled the governor but not the broken system,” Schwarzenegger said. “The broken system has stood in place. The same people who have created the mess, the same people that have sent California – the fifth largest economy in the world – into almost bankruptcy . . . Our education system is failing our children and our families. All of that is still in place, and this is why I propose these four initiatives.”
Many of the propositions’ opponents disagree, saying that the propositions could make life tougher on workers in the public sector, such as teachers, firefighters and nurses, if approved.
“I think it’s a misuse of the initiative process,” said San Luis Obispo City Council member Christine Mulholland who attended the speech. “I think that most of the initiatives are work that our legislature is supposed to be doing and not doing.”
Schwarzenegger said that because the legislature dug California into its troubled financial hole, they cannot be relied on to dig the state out.
“Like Einstein, another guy with a little German accent, he once said that the same mind that created the problem cannot solve it,” Schwarzenegger said. “So they (the legislature) cannot solve it in Sacramento, this mess. It is up to you now. Nov. 8 is your chance to take the power. And Nov. 8 is your chance to change the system and to fix it once and for all.”
Ron Faas, 70, drove from his home in Santa Maria to protest Schwarzenegger’s visit outside the Madonna Inn. He said that he believes there is “strong opposition” on the Central Coast to Schwarzenegger’s proposals.
“I suppose (his visit) will motivate some of his supporters depending on how he answered the questions, but he may have motivated his opposition too,” Faas said.
Capt. Lew Stone, a state firefighters union representative, spoke against Proposition 75, one of the more heated measures. If passed, the proposition would require unions of “special interest” groups, like teachers and firefighters, to get permission from members before using their contributions for political purposes.
“The funny fact of this is that we are outspent from other special interests 24 to one,” Stone said of the firefighters union. “I cannot begin to compete with the oil companies and the pharmaceutical companies . . . By bringing in this proposition, you’re taking our voices completely away. And (the governor) has not gone after the other special interests.”
The governor responded that Proposition 75 would not silence anyone.
“It is wrong for the public union bosses to take money out of someone’s paycheck and use it for political campaigns that are controversial or that the employees are against,” Schwarzenegger said. “Ask for permission. We’re saying, this is your money and your choice.”
Schwarzenegger also asked the community members several times to not believe the negative television ads about the propositions.
“What the other side wants to do is they want to scare you all,” he said. “Don’t fall for that. I’m the people’s governor. I want to help all people-Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Schwarzenegger then reminded the audience that he is married to Democrat and Kennedy family member Maria Shriver.
“I sleep with a Democrat every night,” he said smiling, prompting audience members to laugh.
Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent for public instruction, said that the governor’s propositions are “misguided” and “bad for education.” He noted that Proposition 76 in particular would give the governor unprecedented power over the state’s spending and would harm California’s already limping educational system, which is ranked 42nd out of 50 states.
“In the dark of night, without any public hearing, no notification to the media or the public, the governor can, three times a year, make reductions. It’s unilateral power,” O’Connell said. “The president of the United States does not have that much power over the state budget. It would really make the governor king, and that’s not something that we need in a democracy.”
Schwarzenegger responded that the proposition would not give him such power and noted that the education system would be more hurt without its passing because of the legislature’s spending habits.
“This is protecting education funding-it does not take away any money from education,” the governor said. “We are taking education on a rollercoaster ride. It is up there for our children when revenues go up. When revenues go down, we suspend Proposition 98 and funding for education goes down. Is that not unfair? – I think children in our education system need stability.”
Schwarzenegger followed by saying that the state does not have a revenue problem but rather a spending problem.
“The legislators are the big spenders in Sacramento because it’s not their money – it’s your money,” he said. “They don’t care about your money.”
Schwarzenegger highlighted the legislature’s inability to solve the state’s educational problem with money alone, citing that Proposition 74 would help California schools by eliminating poor teachers and keeping the good ones.
“We have more than 50 percent of our children that are performing below grade level. Is this something we should be proud of?” Schwarzenegger asked. “It’s very important to know that you’re spending $50 billion on education this year. We increased education funding by $3 billion. These are record amounts of money we’re spending. Where are the record results?”
Julian Crocker, San Luis Obispo County’s superintendent, said that Proposition 74 is a “useless” measure that would not bring quality teachers to California’s schools.
“We know what makes good teachers – it’s mentoring, it’s competitive salary, it’s good training,” Crocker said. “Proposition 74 does nothing about that.”
Saro Rizzo, 39, of Avila Beach, was undecided on the measures before coming to Schwarzenegger’s speech but had a clearer idea afterward.
“He did pretty good,” Rizzo said of the governor. “Obviously people have their stump speeches. I think the best way to figure out what it means is you’ve got to read about them on your own and see what the details say.”