California State Senator Tom McClintock sees a lot of smoke and mirrors in budget proposals.
Abraham Lincoln finally had enough of Stephen Douglas’ obfuscations when they met to debate in Charleston, Illinois. He said, “Judge Douglas is playing cuttlefish – a small species of fish that has no mode of defending himself when pursued except by throwing out a black fluid which makes the water so dark the enemy cannot see it, and thus it escapes.”
Lincoln’s cuttlefish story came to mind during the governor’s State of the State message when he blamed the state’s massive budget deficit on formulae that lock in spending. On the same day, a gubernatorial minion penned a column that claimed, “About 90 percent of the state's budget is tied to spending formulas, contracts and/or statutes, requiring spending to increase by specific amounts each year.”
Behind that cloud of sophistry is a species of politician trying to escape responsibility for a budget crisis of his own making.
In fact, virtually all of the “formulas, contracts and/or statutes” can be suspended with the same 2/3 vote that is required to adopt the budget in the first place. Our budget crisis isn’t because these politicians can’t suspend these “mandates” – it’s because they won’t.
True, there are a few expenditures required by the state constitution. The state’s annual debt payments can’t be suspended, although less borrowing can reduce them in the future. Unfortunately, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s borrowing binge has increased our annual debt obligation from $2 billion in 2003 to more than $7 billion today.
The state’s pension payments are contractual obligations that can’t be suspended, but shrinking the public workforce or reforming pensions for new hires can reduce future obligations. Unfortunately, under Schwarzenegger the state employee rolls have grown at nearly twice the rate of population growth.
In addition, there is one ballot proposition that is beyond the control of the legislature and the governor to suspend: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own “After School Program” that now consumes roughly a half-billion dollars each year.
Everything else can be suspended by the same vote that adopts the budget – including every statute on the books. Even most constitutional mandates provide for their own suspension. For example, Proposition 98, which “mandates” that nearly half of the budget must go to public schools, can be suspended by 2/3 vote. Not only did Schwarzenegger refuse to do so through the last three years of declining public school enrollment, he increased the Prop. 98 base – and therefore future budgets -- by billions of dollars above what Prop. 98 called for. That is precisely why the governor is now forced to propose school cuts that are far deeper than would otherwise have been necessary.
Similarly, the state legislature can force virtually any contract back to the bargaining table by refusing to fund it fully in the annual budget act. When Sen. Jackie Speier and I proposed doing so in 2004 in an attempt to bring state prison guard salaries under control, Schwarzenegger opposed it. Now, four years later, the governor proposes releasing 22,000 dangerous felons.
Perhaps the most telling point is simply this: when Senate Republicans desperately warned last summer that the budget was dangerously unbalanced and attempted to enact reforms to avert the crisis, Gov. Schwarzenegger campaigned against them.
When the budget was adopted last August, I warned on the Senate floor, “Today we set in motion events that will require far more difficult and painful decisions starting just five months from now in what is likely to be a much worse economy… For the second time in a decade, this state is being driven to another Gray Davis-sized fiscal crisis.”
The same day, the governor said, “I am pleased that the legislature has passed a responsible budget that protects California's priorities and keeps our economy strong. It was a challenging process but in the end our legislative leaders came together to deliver a spending plan that does not raise taxes, creates the largest reserve in history, and reduces our operating deficit after the spending vetoes that I have promised.”
It’s going to require more than a cloud of rhetorical ink to cover that escape.