SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't hesitate to throw some elbows Thursday while stumping for a May special-election ballot measure package he says is crucial to California's fiscal health.

Speaking to an audience of 400 to 500 hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel — and thousands more listening to a live radio broadcast — the governor said people can use their votes to end the volatility that has plagued the state budget process for so long, leading to crises like the $42 billion deficit lawmakers addressed last month.

Cutting the deficit through spending cuts alone would have meant closing the state university system, cutting off all welfare assistance and shutting down all mental health services, the governor said.

Even firing the state's 200,000 workers "wouldn't have come close to balancing the budget," he said.

"Those who say we could have balanced the budget through spending cuts alone are guilty of political cynicism at its worst. Those are not serious people," he said, but "those who say we could balance the budget through tax increases alone reveal their total economic ignorance and lack of math skills. Their grasp of economics must come from living on a hippie commune or something like that."

The six ballot measures voters will consider May 19 are part of a deal that settled the months-long deadlock over that enormous deficit. The measures would:

  • Impose a spending cap based on the previous decade's revenue while creating a rainy-day fund.


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  • Alter the state's voter-approved education funding law.

  • Borrow from future lottery earnings.

  • Take money from voter-created funds for early-childhood and mental-health services.

  • Deny pay raises to state-level elected officials when the state has a deficit.

    Some oppose the spending cap, saying it would tie future officials' hands in addressing the state's needs. Some say future lottery revenues probably won't pay off the bonds Schwarzenegger wants to sell against them now. Some oppose taking money from the state's most vulnerable. And some oppose the whole plan simply because it involves the tax increases to which the Legislature agreed last month.

    But Schwarzenegger said it's all intertwined, and voters must approve it all if it's going to work.

    "I feel good about the change this budget reform will bring to our state," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, Sacramento may be an immovable object, but together, we can be an irresistible force. With this reform, we can regain control over our budget."

    As he goes on the road preaching "power to the people," Schwarzenegger — whom a Field Poll early this month showed had a 38 percent approval rating, near his record low and with majority disapproval from Californians of both major parties — could be among the state's least popular populists. So perhaps it's no surprise he's bringing all his rhetorical skills to bear on convincing voters to see the ballot measures his way.

    For example, though he has admitted his 2005 special-election agenda — resoundingly rejected by voters — was a tactical error, on Thursday he seemed to be defending it: "In 2005, I went to the people to get budget reform," he said, "but it was defeated by the special interests. They spent $100 million to do so."

    But he seemed to back off that a bit during the question-and-answer period, acknowledging "my way or the highway" was "the wrong approach," but insisting his relationships with labor unions have improved since then and everyone should now see the necessity of this budget-reform agenda.

    He also likened having a state without a spending cap to what happens if he puts a week's worth of food down all at once for his dogs.

    That's not to say he's comparing the state Legislature to his pets.

    "I would never do that because I love my Labradors," he said.

    For the governor's comments on other issues during Thursday's Q-and-A session, visit the Political Blotter blog at www.ibabuzz.com/politics/.

    Reach Josh Richman at 510-208-6428 or jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com.