Uh-oh. What’s happened to that loopy green giant of a governor who recently endeared himself by blazing down the center of the hydrogen-powered highway of reasonable political post-partisanship? Bat your eyes for a moment and — shazam! — that grinchy steel-hearted Terminator has pushed him aside. Just as he once promised onscreen, he’s back. And you better look out.
For the aficionados of Sacramento’s obscure inside-baseball fungo, it’s what’s called the May budget revision. For the rest of us, it simply means that Arnold Schwarzenegger has once again started whacking away at the poor.
Four months ago the governor promised to zero out what he called the “net operating deficit” in the state budget. But we wake up this week to find that California’s structural deficit is still running deep into red. After you cut through all the political mumbo-jumbo, the governor’s empty promises and some of his more hare-brained plans, we arrive at a sobering shortfall of as much as $7 billion. Not much different than the grayest days of his predecessor’s ill-fated tenure.
But the Governator has what he thinks to be the proper budget fix: eliminate welfare assistance for families not meeting ever-stricter workfare rules, reduce grants to more than 150,000 kids in those families intended to keep them slipping into homelessness, freeze the cost-of-living increases for those on welfare and for the blind, elderly and disabled (just at a time when gas breaks the $4-a-gallon mark), chop a billion bucks in public transit money (including $230 million from our local MTA), escalate fees at state colleges another 10 percent or so, lease out the faltering state lottery, privatize the state board that backs student loans, and allow the wealthiest tribes in the state — without any serious oversight — to further expand their casino operations in exchange for a kickback to the state.
Schwarzenegger’s speechwriters called this plan “outside-the-box” thinking, as if balancing a budget on the backs of the poor were something no one had ever thought of before in American politics.
Some of us, I confess, were hoping if not predicting that in his second term — liberated from the concerns of campaigning once again — Schwarzenegger would do what Republican governors Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan did when they sat in his chair: raise taxes enough to properly finance the operations of the most glorious state in the union.
But no way. Looks like for all the governor’s public bravado, the girly man inside of Arnold that has been struggling to get out has definitively sprung free. The governor just doesn’t have the guts to do what he and everybody not still living in a cave knows is the right thing. The grotesque concentrations of wealth in our state — leading to front-page discussions in the L.A. Times on how just tough it is nowadays to buy a house on $250,000 a year — will continue to accumulate unabated and insufficiently taxed.
The $660 million the governor slashes from health and human-service spending would go instead toward early repayment of the deficit-reduction bonds purchased shortly after he took office. That should at least give the newly homeless and the more deeply indebted blind folks something to be proud of, the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done their little part to help improve California’s credit rating.
Kabuki is the standard cliché used to describe what will next transpire in Sacramento. In the next six weeks before the July 1 budget deadline, all sides will wildly dance for the camera while simultaneously meeting behind closed doors to hammer out a deal.
The Republicans are already complaining that the governor’s cuts aren’t nearly deep enough. When asked about his concerns that tens of thousands of families face the possibility of seeing their welfare assistance terminated, state GOP spokesman Hector Barajas chirped: “To get off welfare is something the state should be promoting. It’s a safety net. It’s not a mattress.” Right, Hector. And that isn’t brains in your head, it’s stuffing.
Democrats, for their part, are crying bloody murder and are vowing to man the ramparts of steadfast defense of the poor (that’s provided that Speaker Fabian Núñez isn’t distracted by one of his 12-day junkets with the governor’s staff in Rio de Janeiro, as was recently the case).
The more mundane truth is that some sort of compromise will eventually be reached. After a spate of name-calling and prolonged haggling among the Big Five — the governor and the leadership of both parties — probably around midnight on June 30, a make-up press conference will be held. It will all be harmony and light and the make-my-day polemics of the previous weeks will be but dim memories. A two-thirds vote of the Legislature will approve the new budget. Among the mass of the poor and the blind and the disabled originally targeted for cuts, a few will be spared. As for the rest, well, who cares? That’s the way it has always worked. No reason to believe it will be any different this time around.