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Legislature Should Fix What It Broke

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Here's the reason Californians don't trust Sacramento: In July 2003, the state controller's office figured there were 230,000 state employees. Since then, every budget deal has featured legislators' howling protestations that they've been forced to make horrific budget cuts, yet the controller now estimates the state has 244,000 employees.

While state businesses have been forced to lay off good people, state government kept growing. Even now, Sacto's focus has been on moving state workers out of positions bankrolled by the general fund and into state jobs underwritten by other sources.

"Government has always been viewed correctly as an institution that immunizes itself from this kind of pain," noted Darry Sragow, a Democratic political guru. "But governing requires making decisions that are painful."

Not that Sragow sees it this way -- he doesn't -- but governing is what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally is doing. Payroll is shrinking. Lynelle Jolley of the State Personnel Board explained to me that the 244,000 figure includes some vacant positions. The governor does not have the authority to swiftly lay off state workers, but up to 4,600 staffers could lose their jobs in September.

The biggie: The governor can unilaterally furlough state employees -- he recently added a third day to two unpaid furlough days per month. As Jolley noted, the governator's furlough action "translates into a 14 percent cut in pay" for most state workers.

That big pay cut is expected to yield $2.2 billion in savings this fiscal year. The bad news: There's $24 billion to go.

Arnold also has rediscovered "waste, fraud and abuse" -- his mantra for the spending cuts he promised during the 2003 recall campaign. But he couldn't handle the criticism that followed attempts to cut spending and so dropped his campaign promises.

Last year, Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times that if you try to balance the budget on the backs of waste, fraud and abuse, "You are not even going to find 1 percent there."

Then all five of his budget measures tanked on the May 19 special election ballot. Now with support of local prosecutors, Schwarzenegger has targeted fraud in the In-Home Supportive Services Program. (One district attorney said her office had found that alleged in-home workers continued to get paid for work when in jail.) He hopes that reform alone will save $500 million.

This is where I'm supposed to insert the standard lament about how puerile Repubs have soiled themselves by using the two-thirds vote required to pass a budget as a way to block budgets with tax increases. But I think Small Business Action Committee head Joel Fox is right to point out that "this is not a cuts-only budget," as last year's budget raised $10 billion in taxes in this fiscal year.

Sure, in the end, a handful of GOP adults will have to vote with Democrats for a budget that includes more tax hikes and more gimmicks. Math is math.

And math being math, the Democrats have an obligation to fix this mess, instead of proclaiming, as the sometimes-absent-from-negotiations Assembly Speaker Karen Bass recently did, that Schwarzenegger "broke it. He should fix it."

It's time for Democrats to agree to more serious cuts -- not just moving around the money and personnel. As Fox argued, in this down economy, it's not even clear if any proposed tax increases can produce what they're supposed to produce.

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