By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Last week, the California governor, speaker of the State Assembly and the president pro tem of the State Senate announced a budget deal that slashes many state-government programs and departments to 2005 levels and forcibly “borrows” $2 billion from fiscally wrecked cities and counties.
The deal, designed to address a roughly $24 billion to $26-plus billion deficit, drew criticism for its severe cuts and praise for its belt-tightening, but along with it, lawsuit threats, cries of unconstitutionality, and big headlines when the Los Angeles Times suggested that 27,000 of California’s 168,000 prisoners might get released to save $1.2 billion.
The prisoner-release report set off a caterwaul by Republican legislators, who decried it as a double-cross by Democrats — except that the idea being discussed by Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was not a done deal. Some political analysts say a prisoner-release plan is iffy, especially after the tragic carjacking and murder of popular high school student Lily Burk in broad daylight in Los Angeles last Friday, allegedly committed by a violent ex-con released on parole in February. (See next page for story.) The union representing Los Angeles cops called suspect Charlie Samuel “precisely the type of ‘low-level’ parolee the state no longer wants to take responsibility for” and would release from prison to cut its deficit.
Some experts predict the budget will quickly become unbalanced again, thanks to a persistently bad economy. That didn’t stop self-congratulations and posturing by Schwarzenegger, Democratic majority leaders Karen Bass and Darrell Steinberg, and Republican minority leaders Dennis Hollingsworth and Sam Blakeslee, the so-called “big five” who worked out this latest budget.
Tim Hodson, executive director of the Sacramento State Center for California Studies, says that if the national economy “continues to sputter, and the California economy sputters, they may have to revisit this budget even before the end of the year — and with the same melodrama. And in the end, there will be cuts.”
Hodson hopes that the crisis yet to come will force the Legislature and business community to work together on a blend of permanent reforms that would increase some taxes while also producing spending discipline — a combination that has utterly eluded Schwarzenegger, Bass, Steinberg, Hollingsworth and Blakeslee.
Cities and counties attacked the $2 billion forcible “borrowing” of local property taxes, but an even more damaging plan to simply take $1 billion in local gas taxes was rejected at the last minute by the Legislature.
That left Schwarzenegger, veto pen in hand, looking all day on July 27 for eleventh-hour ways to close the deficit. On Tuesday, July 28, he signed a budget from which he personally cut $500 million out of programs that had escaped deeper cuts earlier. Among other areas, the new cuts reduced the funds to pay for investigators of child abuse and neglect, salaries for Medi-Cal eligibility workers, and key positions at the state’s AIDS prevention office.
Joel Bellman, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the almost desperate mishmash of budget cuts, borrowing and tricks suggests that the Sacramento press corps is failing to keep a close eye on the politicians who have left Sacramento gridlocked.
“If it hadn’t been such a depleted, exhausted and gutted press corps, they would not be able to get away with half this shit,” Bellman, a former newsman, said. “I don’t want to slight The Sacramento Bee and others, but there is far, far too little coverage of what is going on. To some extent the Sacramento media have Stockholm Syndrome. This budget isn’t just caused by the recession. We have had years and years of misalignment between spending and income.”
Bellman likened the $2 billion borrowing from local treasuries — coming after deep cuts already made by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and local governments — to watching “a ‘Saw’ movie, where if you try anything to escape the problem, you get into an even worse situation.”
The grinning photos of Schwarzenegger and Bass — two leaders who have helped drive Sacramento’s current public-approval ratings into the ground — set off thousands of e-mails and comments on Web sites statewide. Bill Fujioka, chief executive officer for Los Angeles County, speaking to L.A. Weekly, said of the budget plan, “Can you make sense of all the bullshit?”
Schwarzenegger posted a video of himself via Twitter in which he’s seen fiddling around with a big knife, clearly making light of roughly $15 billion in cuts to education, welfare, health care and other services that will fall heavily on those who can least afford them. Schwarzenegger bragged that he could autograph state vehicles set to be auctioned to raise funds, and critics immediately chortled that his autograph isn’t worth much these days.
Bass’ behavior came off as equally odd. Earlier this year, Bass, who has struggled as speaker, backed a plan to give big raises to scores of legislative staffers in Sacramento. Her plan drew tremendous public outrage and she dumped the idea, but the episode left her politically scarred.