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The Los Angeles Times
Feb 27, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Steve Lopez

Hey Voters, Don't Worry, Be Happy!

I'm feeling very happy lately.

Do you feel happy?

I was kind of blue for a while, to tell you the truth. I was pessimistic about the California economy, and I certainly didn't like anyone remotely associated with the state Legislature. But now I want to give every legislator a big hug, and I feel like I could jump high enough to kiss the moon.

This puts me in sync with a lot of people, according to a Times poll that found people in high spirits, with surging optimism about the state's fortunes and overwhelming popularity for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Who knew we were electing a therapist?

To tell you the truth, I was kind of late in joining the party. It happened just the other day.

I was playing with my baby daughter and the TV was on in the background. Within a span of seven minutes, I saw two ads promoting Proposition 57. One was 30 seconds long and the other was 15 seconds, each of them explaining how good we'll feel about $15 billion worth of debt.

In less than a minute worth of appeals from Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the fog was lifted for me. It's like the powerful, liberating feeling you get when you whip out a credit card to buy something you really can't afford.

I scooped up my daughter and sang "Que Sera, Sera."

I honestly didn't know which way to vote on Proposition 57 until then, and thousands of Californians must have felt the same way. Just a couple of weeks ago, the $15-billion bond measure had worse prospects than the Dodgers.

Then the ads began. It's amazing what a $10-million advertising budget can accomplish, isn't it? Support for Proposition 57 soared, and if I had to bet, I'd say it'll win handily on Tuesday.

"Are we such a malleable electorate that a celebrity gets a bunch of special interests to give him $10 million, and suddenly we can be convinced of anything we see on TV?" asks Jamie Court of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

The answer is an upbeat, confident, unapologetic, YES!

But let me tell you more about my conversion.

Before I saw the ads, I had lots of questions about Proposition 57. Glendora City Manager Eric Ziegler and West Covina Mayor Pro Tem Mike Miller got hold of me in a panic, saying Prop. 57 will be paid for out of their meager treasuries.

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, a Republican supporter of Schwarzenegger, is the harshest critic of Prop. 57 I've run into, with the possible exception of Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

"Everybody should be up in arms," said Autry, who explained that the $1.3-billion annual cost of Prop. 57 will come from a portion of the sales tax desperately needed by cities. "At the end of the day, what we very well could end up with is $15-billion worth of debt around our children's necks, a tax increase, and decimated local treasuries."

Borrowing is the easy way out, said Autry, which explains the almost giddy bipartisan support.

Republicans can avoid tax increases for now, but Democrats get an even better deal. They can avoid deep cuts, escape full blame for driving the state to the brink of bankruptcy, and make sure not to incur the governor's wrath.

Lots of people are reluctantly embracing Prop. 57 because alternatives could be worse. But they don't have to be, Autry argued.

Angelides would refill the state's treasury by restoring the top-income tax bracket used by former governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. And Autry recommends that Schwarzenegger conduct his promised audit first and borrow less money later on, when it might be possible to cut a better deal with Wall Street.

The reason for the rush, Autry said, is that Sacramento doesn't want us to get too close a look at Props. 57 or 58.

"These propositions collectively pose the greatest threat to the future of this state that we've seen in my lifetime," Autry said. "We're rushing recklessly into this night ... and we don't have to."

I almost bought the Fresno mayor's spin. But then came that fateful day when I had my daughter parked in front of the television. All I can figure is that Autry must not have seen any of the Prop. 57 ads or he would have gladly joined Team Arnold, no questions asked.

Sure, they don't give you much detail. But that's the beauty of the modern democratic process.

You and I can go about our business while political hired guns save us the trouble of self-education and public discourse, expertly boiling complicated issues down to convenient, 30-second simplifications and half-truths.

"I am committed to putting our financial house in order," Schwarzenegger says in one of the ads. "And I need your help. After all, it is your money."

I'm feeling giddy.

Do you feel giddy?

Hey, Arnold. Are you sure $15 billion is enough?
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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at: steve.lopez@latimes.com




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