There was a revealing moment during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech Tuesday, sandwiched between otherwise prudent-sounding, quasi-conservative fiscal proclamations. Mr. Schwarzenegger invoked as a model the big daddy of Big Government, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as if FDR's approach should be emulated.

As many economists now understand, the economic manipulations of FDR and the Federal Reserve arguably prolonged the Great Depression's misery and delayed recovery. Nevertheless, our governor finds inspiration in that big-government approach. For all his insistence that he's a fiscal conservative, Mr. Schwarzenegger is, at heart, a Big Government kind of guy.

That's why Mr. Schwarzenegger's approach is fundamentally flawed when faced with a huge budget deficit and even larger projected debts for government workers' retirement benefits. He assumes whatever government already spends is justified. The constitutional cap he proposes on spending in lean years and setting aside "excess" funds in fat years is predicated on a belief that the money belongs to the government, not to the people from whom it's collected.

Mr. Schwarzenegger didn't even hint that if the state collects more money than it planned to spend, the money should be returned. Instead, he would squirrel away the "excess" money so the state can spend it later. This is a government-entitlement approach, not a fiscally conservative approach. The government, Mr. Schwarzenegger believes, is entitled to your money - even if the government collects more than it planned to spend.

The state's current fiscal mess is an opportunity for the governor and the Legislature to make fundamental changes. Or they can keep trying to shore up the mess their overtaxing and free-spending ways have created. This is their opportunity to reassess the multitudinous programs they've created and expanded far beyond government's legitimate role. Now's their opportunity, when the state is forced by a looming deficit to re-evaluate what's necessary, and what's not. We can be sure that when Sacramento is flush with cash no such reassessment will occur.

Ideally, we would like a zero-based system, where, every year, every budget item is reevaluated. Otherwise, what's once approved is assumed to live forever. As Ronald Reagan, who had credible fiscal conservative credentials, once complained: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. ... [A] government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth!"

Sacramento's approach has been not how much to reduce government spending, but how much can be added to it. At best politicians speak of growing more slowly, never shrinking. Consequently, general-fund spending has soared 40 percent in four years.

About 90 percent of state spending is committed by contracts and statutory requirements, or as Mr. Schwarzenegger put it, "on autopilot." The governor acknowledged that automatic formulas build in increased spending to the tune of 7.3 percent this year.

It's telling that Mr. Schwarzenegger's complaint isn't with increased spending as much as it is that taxpayers' money doesn't keep pace. Only because revenue hasn't kept pace is he now grudgingly forced to propose cuts. We suspect that if revenue doubled, he and his pals in the Legislature would find ways to spend every dime. This is his basic flaw.

When the governor presents his presumably leaner budget, he has an opportunity to be an opponent of Big Government, like President Reagan, rather than emulate FDR. We'll see.