SACRAMENTO — When Gov. Pete Wilson proposed raising taxes by a record $6.7 billion, he said he had already considered every possible reduction in state spending that could humanely and wisely be made.
Further cuts, Wilson said, would mean releasing convicted felons before the end of their terms, denying prescription drugs to impoverished children, and eliminating research and care for Alzheimer's disease.
But Wilson's proposed $55.7-billion budget would preserve the state's $16-million Arts Council, leave intact $24 million in acupuncture, podiatry and chiropractic services covered by Medi-Cal, and ignore hundreds of millions of dollars in potential savings proposed by the nonpartisan legislative analyst.
Although these programs, too, have their staunch defenders, they are among billions of dollars in potential spending cuts put forward by legislators and taxpayers groups. They were rejected by the Republican governor, who, using the same political judgment that got him elected governor, chose a more pragmatic road than some of his more conservative friends and allies might have preferred.
Some of these advocates for deeper cuts have embraced dramatic reductions in public employee pensions or radical changes in public schools that have no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
But there remain hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed cuts--from eliminating free cars for legislators to closing the office of the state architect--that might be acceptable to the political mainstream but were turned aside by Wilson before he proposed raising taxes as a "last resort."
Legislative analyst Elizabeth Hill and her team of more than 60 analysts have prepared a 1,400-page study of Wilson's budget that cites $438 million in non-essential spending.
The California Taxpayers Assn., an outside organization that probably keeps the closest watch on state spending, asserts that more than a billion dollars could be saved by changes in the state retirement system.
Administration officials insist that Wilson has trimmed all the fat from his proposed spending plan.
"We've put together a responsible budget that still provides services," said Finance Director Thomas W. Hayes. "The next cuts to save any substantial amount of money would be very difficult."
Assemblyman Tom McClintock, the Legislature's foremost critic of new taxes, disagrees. McClintock, a Republican from Thousand Oaks, has prepared a list of cuts proposed by himself and others that total more than $14 billion. He insists that it is realistic to propose balancing the budget without raising taxes.
"There's a huge variety of spending reductions that could be used to balance the state budget without a tax increase and still provide basic levels of service," McClintock said.
Some of McClintock's favorite examples fail to withstand serious scrutiny. For instance, he counts $143 million that could be saved by merging two state tax agencies--the State Board of Equalization and Franchise Tax Board. But there is no way these savings could be obtained this year because the action would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
Similarly, many voters might agree with McClintock's assertion that taxpayers need not spend $5 million each year regulating barbers and hair stylists. But taxpayers are not spending the money; it comes from fees paid by the barbers.
The largest reductions advocated by the maverick lawmaker probably have no chance of being enacted because they are politically extreme. For example, he contends that $3.8 billion could be saved by giving every California pupil a $4,000 scholarship to spend at the public or private school of their choice. McClintock figures the state now spends about $5,300 a year for every student in the general school population.
Still, a healthy portion of McClintock's proposals appear to represent more realistic potential savings.
The lawmaker wonders why the state needs a $16-million Arts Council when it is raising taxes and cutting services. He has proposed eliminating the office of state architect and cutting back the State Fire Marshal's Office and instead letting local governments handle the inspections and plan checking for state buildings, as they do for the private sector. Together, he says, these cuts would save $130 million. He would capture another $94 million by eliminating the non-regulatory functions of the state Energy Commission.
McClintock has also taken aim at some of the money state officials spend on themselves. He suggests that the budget be scaled back to reflect a $50-million cut in the Legislature's operating expenses required by voter-approved Proposition 140, better known for its provision that limits terms. McClintock argues that the governor could save $2.7 million by accepting a similar reduction in his office staff.
A smaller amount--$3 million--could be saved by rolling back legislators' salaries to last year's levels and eliminating cars leased for each state lawmaker.