Now, after almost three years of failure to do anything at all to move in that direction, Schwarzenegger has made it clear he never will - at least, he never will as long as there’s a possibility he might run for office again.
That’s the meaning of his public opposition to this fall’s Proposition 89, the latest in a long string of efforts to bring integrity to Sacramento. His stated reason for fighting the measure: It might raise taxes for some of his financial backers.
“The initiative requires a tax increase to pay for the reforms it proposes and a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving a similar effort in Vermont raises red flags about (its) legality,” said a Schwarzenegger campaign statement.
In fact, Proposition 89 is vastly different from the Vermont law and its only new tax would be a tiny increase for corporations and banks.
The context of all this: In his first political campaign, the governor swore in 2003 that he would never take contributions from special interests. He promised to take a “big broom” and sweep the state Capitol clean. He castigated Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, then a rival recall candidate, for “skirting and violating the campaign finance laws passed by the people of California.”
He blasted politicians for accepting campaign contributions during times when they’re considering the state budget. “As governor, I will ban all fund-raising by state officials during the budget process,” he trumpeted.
Essentially, Scharzenegger’s theme was that campaign contributions are the root of all evil in government, corrupting the entire political process and rendering suspect almost everything elected officials ever do.
But so far, the governor stands 0-for-4 on doing anything about his promises and complaints. He has yet to try keeping even one of his campaign finance-related promises. Meanwhile, he paid a $200,000 fine assessed against him by the state Fair Political Practices for violations of campaign contribution reporting laws during last year’s special election campaign.
The commission found Schwarzenegger and his committees committed 143 violations of the Political Reform Act, a 30-year-old law passed as an initiative, and failed to disclose more than $25 million in advertising to support his series of ballot propositions.
None of those violations had anything to do with the other Schwarzenegger promises, the ones about not touching special-interest money or taking donations during the budget period.
By the time the ongoing campaign is over, Schwarzenegger since his first election will have taken almost $200 million from corporations and executives affected in major ways by state laws and policies. He raked in $26 million from interests affected by pending legislation during August and September alone - the bill-signing period for any governor.
But even after all this, there was always the possibility he might try to do something to assure a cleaner future, one where links between state policy and campaign contributions wouldn’t be nearly so clear. He could have supported Proposition 89, which hikes taxes on corporations and banks by .2 percent and earmarks the money for candidates who collect enough $5 contributions to qualify. The number of small contributions needed to get public funding would vary from office to office and from election to election, with candidates for governor required to collect the most.
Dubbed the Clean Money Initiative by its sponsors, the plan would also limit so-called “independent expenditures” by corporations, labor unions and any other sort of group to $7,500 per election, a tiny fraction of what is spent now.
The measure seems to embody the cleaning-house spirit of the original Schwarzenegger. But he’s against it.
This proposition would barely affect Schwarzenegger at all. Since he’ll be termed out in 2010, he can never again run for governor if he wins this time. The only other office that might appeal to him would be U.S. senator, and Senate campaigns are subject to federal law, not state regulation.
But there’s the small matter of that .2 percent added tax on big business - the focus of Schwarzenegger’s statement of opposition. Might he be influenced by the fact that Proposition 89 would take about $200 million a year from the very special interests that now bankroll everything he does?
Unless and until Schwarzenegger says more, no one can be sure whether cause and effect is at work here. What is certain is that if this measure doesn’t pass, it will be business as usual in Sacramento indefinitely, with quid pro quos as common as mosquitos in a swamp and pay to play politics running rampant.
Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at email@example.com.