California credibility crisis

If members of Congress are able to start their scheduled August break Friday, many of them may be wanting to head for a secluded vacation spot rather than returning home to face their constituents. Back home they’ll find voters who’ve been bombarded with grassroots and advertising campaigns from all sides of the healthcare debate. Labor, the president, both political parties, insurers and business groups that don’t want to pay the bill for healthcare reform have ginned up grassroots activists and scheduled substantial advertising buys to argue their particular point of view.

As if all this agitating over the national agenda were not enough, many senators and members of Congress hail from states with troubled economies, unbalanced budgets and huge deficits. Governors and state legislatures are struggling to close the gaps with deep budget cuts and a grab-bag of potential new taxes on everything from marijuana to strip clubs to cell phone ringtones. California, the poster child for troubled states, has just shown how hard it is to even appear to be running in the black. The Golden State could be the golden canary in the national coalmine — sending a warning message to dozens of other states, and even the federal government, on just how difficult it is to clear the red ink after decades of profligate spending.

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For the past year, California politics have been consumed by the battle of the budget — a political fight between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled Assembly that has destroyed the reputations of both sides. This spring the governor finally gave up on trying to negotiate a balanced budget and cut a hasty deal with legislators to refer a package of six ballot measures to voters so they could make the tough decisions. The voters didn’t buy it. They overwhelmingly defeated five of the proposals — passing only the one that prevented legislators and state executives from giving themselves a raise unless the budget was balanced.

Chagrined and sent back to work, the Legislature and the governor finally agreed on the outlines of a compromise that made deep program cuts and came close to delivering a balanced budget. The bill was passed by both houses of an exhausted assembly at the eleventh hour — and everyone promptly packed up and left Sacramento. The budget they dropped on Schwarzenegger’s desk as they left town fell short of what the Governator wanted, however. So the governor broke out his blue pen and started slashing deeper into state spending. The result was a budget bill Schwarzenegger, who never misses a chance to invoke Hollywood imagery, called “the good, the bad and the ugly.” The reception from Democrats all over the state was that the last two adjectives were right on the mark.

The blue pen ripped through the budget, making roughly half a billion dollars in additional line-item cuts. Among the most drastic reductions was another $80 million he slashed from child welfare services, which his administration admits will mean fewer social workers available to investigate reports of child abuse or supervise those investigations. Child advocates screamed in protest, saying the combined cuts of $121 million made by the Assembly and the governor will result in “children being at much greater risk for being abused and neglected.” The most vulnerable of California’s citizens were taking the biggest hit, they protested.

Other cuts to California’s cherished social services included eliminating programs that help elderly and disabled people stay in their homes; ending a teen pregnancy program; cutting funds for AIDS education, testing, early intervention and housing; eliminating health insurance for half a million poor children; and ending a program to help victims of domestic violence. All these are tough choices opposed by most Democratic legislators, many of their most important constituencies and, in fact, a majority of California voters. A recent poll showed the only budget cuts Californians supported were to state parks (a hundred will close under the new budget) and prisons.

The governor’s blue pen and his signature on the resulting bill do not end this process. Democrats and various advocacy groups argue the governor’s cuts are illegal — outside the scope of his line-item veto powers. So, after more than a year of intense political infighting, the nation’s largest state may still not have a budget — a situation that has many in California wondering if there is any reason to have a government, either. That is a message that may well spread to other states as voters ponder leaders unable to deliver a government that works on a budget that is balanced.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.  E-mail: ben@gcsa.com